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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But as predators, it's OK for us to eat meat too. 

No, killing someone to eat is always a violation of the mere means principle (the basic right not to be used as merely a means, the middle finger). Only if a behavior is natural, normal and necessary (i.e. strongly contributes to biodiversity, the ring finger), is it allowed to violate someone's basic right.

Compare it with sex and rape. Sex is natural (the development of a penis is a result of natural evolution), normal (it happens a lot) and necessary (for survival of populations). In that sense, sex is like eating food. But rape is natural (the involuntariness of the victim does not make the behavior unnatural), it might be normal (if it happens a lot; our ancestors did it, animals in the wild do it), but in most cases, like ours, it definitely is not necessary (biodiversity would not decrease if we stopped raping). As rape is a violation of someone's basic right (like eating meat), such a violation is only allowed if all three criteria are met, which is not the case, because for us, rape is not necessary for survival.

If other animals eat meat to survive, and I'm an omnivore, then I feel OK about eating meat too.  How the animal might be kept while it's alive, or how it's killed, is another matter entirely.  Rape isn't a matter of survival.  Normal eating is.  For an omnivore, normal eating includes meat.  I don't see any need for me to give that up just because I walk on two legs and use a computer. 

for you, as an omnivore, meat is not necessary for survival. If you say that you have a property (being an omnivore) that justifies eating meat as normal food, then it is all too easy for a rapist to say that he has a property (behing a rapist) for whom of course it is normal to rape (a rapist who does not rape, is not a rapist). So this rapist can justify rape, because for him it is normal. For you, being anon-rapist, rape is not normal if you do not rape, but for the rapist who rapes, rape is what he does, so rape is a normal behavior for a rapist because all and only rapists rape. It is an exact match (it's more than saying rape is normal for rapists because most rapists rape. No, all of them rape, without exception). 

In other words: it is not yet clear what you mean with "normal", and you have to be very careful that your definition of normal cannot be abused by rapists.

Rape isn't a matter of survival, eating meat is also not a matter of survival. If you really want to stick to something normal, then you can eat vegan, because once you eat vegan, vegan food would become normal for you (because it is what you do, what you eat)

It's not legitimate to compare eating meat with rape.  They are not sufficiently alike for anyone to be able to draw conclusions about eating meat from this comparison.  Eating meat, preying on other animals, is an evolved source of nutrition for many living things including some plants.  It's a basic aspect of the animal kingdom and one which many animals rely on to survive.  Rape on the other hand is a social misdemeanour.  They are not alike.  We are not fazed by an attempt to compare us to rapists. 

As humans we have the choice not to eat meat, out of valid ethical concerns for the wellbeing of animals and the environment.  These are noble and worthy concerns, but for the foreseeable future vegetarianism will remain a free choice, and humans will have the potential right to eat meat.

If I understand you correctly, you are pointing at the difference between meat and rape, that I also pointed at: necessity (for survival).

Let's analyze it. A first, trivial difference is that the first is about food and the other about sex. But that doesn't really fit: why should the realm of eating be treated differently than the realm of sex and procreation? I don't see why we are allowed to violate basic rights with our mouths but not with our penisses. A rule like "don't violate basic rights with body parts below you waste" seems too arbitrary.

A second difference might be that meat consumption is evolved, rape is not. But this is not an easy one: I agree that both eating and sex are evolved, and both behaviors allow to violate basic rights. You can say that violating someone's basic right for food is more the result of evolution than violating someone's right for sex. A predator's intestins are more adapted for meat, than a male's penis is adapted for rape. However, this adaptation leans towards a third difference, which I think is the crucial difference between meat and rape: meat is necessary for survival of predators, rape is not necessary for survival of men. Your reference to "which animals rely on to survive" makes me believe that you are in essence also pointing at this third, relevant difference. Simply imagine that rape was necessary for a lot of animal populations. What would our judgments be in that case?

In other words, I think you and I agree on the crucial difference between meat consumption and rape, which makes them incomparable. But for humans, there is the analogy: both are not necessary, both are choices with similar ethical concerns for someone's well-being.

Your most basic error here is stating that rape is equivalent to sex.  That on its own, invalidates your reasoning here.

Rape is no more equivalent to sex, than my ramming a bloodied steak down your throat against your will, is fine dining.

Yes, I can (in theory) either have sex with a person or rape that same person.  When it comes to eating an animal, there's no equivalent choice.  What am I going to do instead - kiss it goodnight? 

In other words - your analogy doesn't hold up except in the way that you want it to.  It's a metaphor, but holds no more weight than that.  You can't say that because rape is wrong, eating meat is wrong.  It doesn't work. 

Strega, I don't see whet the analogy is not valid: both rape and sex involve penetration with a penis. The only difference is the coercion.

Simon, I see what you mean: it is possible to have sex with and rape a same person, i.e. not violating and violating her right. But wehn it comes to animals, we cannot eat them without violating rights. Yeah, that is also a difference between meat and rape. But I don't see why it should be morally relevant. If there is a woman who does not want to have sex with anyone, we cannot have consensual sex with her; we can only rape her. But still that does not mean we are allowed to rape her.

The crucial point of the analogy remains: both rape and meat consumption violate someone's basic right: the presence of the body of the victim is required, and the victim has to undergo something that s/he does not want.

"The crucial point of the analogy remains: both rape and meat consumption violate someone's basic right: the presence of the body of the victim is required, and the victim has to undergo something that s/he does not want." 

But that's the only point that remains - therefore it's a useless analogy. 

"But I don't see why it should be morally relevant." 

- You're supposed to have produced a moral system.  If it's not morally relevant, it's not relevant to any of your arguments in support of your moral system. 


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