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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For all of you arguing that plants are sentient like animals. Yes, plants, like computers and immune systems are very complex, they have communication,... But please be consistent: argue for computer welfare laws, and plant welfare laws!

Ok, ok - I finally understand your ethical system and can see that it is perfectly consistent.  The trouble I had, and which I feel most people are having, is that you elaborated all this business about fingers and whatnot without clearly stating the foundational principal of the system as a whole.

So, at the foundation, your ethical system is: It is wrong to eat animals, consume their byproducts, or use any part of their bodies in anyway.

All the rest of this bullshit is just a rationalization of that single, arbitrary, unfounded ethic.  You create this hand idea and try to present it as 'supporting philosophy' when, in point of fact, it is all nothing more than rationalization in order to avoid dealing with the fact that you have no basis for this system, that it is entirely arbitrary, and there is no reason at all for anyone else to drink your Kool-Aid.

He starts with the conclusion he wants to reach and builds  back from there to the fundamental premises and principles. "I want an ethical system that entails that meat eating is immoral. How can I 'prove' that?" He then bases it on attitudes and stipulations instead of facts.

Yes - but if you accept his arbitrary starting point then the rest is all consistent.  Trying to state all the rationalizations without pointing out that you must first assume the foundational premise makes it nearly impossible to follow.

Looking at moral psychology, all kinds of reasoning in ethics are in a sense rationalizations, especially if you try to formulate moral intuitions in moral rules. It is far from easy to meake these moral rules consistent, and some intuitions are not compatible with a coherent system of universalist rules, and so we have to say that those intuitions are moral illusions.

Anyway, at least consciously I did not start with a conclusion against meat consumption. On the contrary, I tried to justify meat consumption. But after ten years of study and discussion with more than 1000 people on veganism, the five fingers is really the best I can come up with. My starting point was a study about what is equality in general. And I derived five different kinds of equality and two kinds of inequality that are consistent with those five principles. So I have a very nuanced picture about equality and antidiscrimination. In discussions, I noticed that people are often very confused about equality.

Please elaborate further on your falsification efforts.  In your ten years of study, how many non-vegans did you run your bullshit past?  I'm sensing selective group study for the purpose of confirmation bias.

well, what can I say, summarizing ten years? I do a lot of vegan outreach, so I spoke with I guess 1000 people? I especially turned to meat eating academics and anti animal rights organisations. Unfortunately, they all gave fallacies. The long list of more than 150 fallacies are presented in my Dutch book on animal rights. And now I'm finishing a PhD research about the ethical consistency of animal equality. As an example of falsification, I recently broke down a part of my own theory (a part behind the forefinger principle).

Increasing human biodiversity should not be a goal at this point. In fact a reduction in our progeny should be encouraged. It is more ethical than any vegan effort.


it is and-and, not or-or. You can both be vegan and support family planning.

I am not able to say what is more ethical, but veganism and family planning are the two strategies that have the most winners.

Winners for veganism: animals, future generations (cfr climate change, environmental impact), biodiversity (cfr livestock as number one cause of biodiversity loss), consumers health (cfr effect of saturated fats), health of farmers (cfr use of antibiotics,...), health of public (cfr zoonotic diseases in livestock), people with food insecurity (cfr use of land and water in livestock is inefficient)

Winners for family planning and reproductive health (reduction of unwanted pregnancies): biodiversity (cfr less people -> less environmental impact), resource security for future generations, poor people (cfr poverty trap due to large families and population growth higher than economic growth), women (cfr women rights, control over their bodies), women health (cfr cost of unwanted pregnancies), child health (cfr higher child survival rates in families with family planning)

Oh, so when the limited scope of your 'research' is pointed out you just change the scope and fabricate 'meat eating academics' that didn't previously factor in.  Please name a few of these anti-animal-rights organizations with whom you claim to have consulted.

So now you are a PhD in this field of bullshit, huh?  Ok - so where are your peer reviews of this 'theory' of yours?

do I fabricate 'meat eating academics'? The anti animal rights organisations I've had discussions with: mostly BROK (in Belgium), and a little bit other organisations like the center for consumer freedom (although the latter lost too much credibility to learn anything from them)

I am not a PhD yet. I hope to finish within a year. Recenty I published "speciesism as a moral heuristic" in philosophia. "Towards a coherent theory of animal ethics" will be published in Between the Species, and I published one (about the five fingers) in a Dutch academic journal. Other articles are under review.


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