The issue of if animals have the same sentience and morality of humans is a topic that has been greatly debated throughout history. Many philosophers and scientists have weighed in to try and find the answer to this age-old question. Singer has explicit views on the relative sentience of animals and morality of the ways in which human beings use animals, and those views often come into conflict with the ways that human beings interact with non-human animals in various societies. Singer defines sentience as “the capacity to experience episodes of positively or negatively valenced awarenesses” (Singer). Positive sentience would include emotions such as joy, elation, and comfort. Likewise negative sentience would include anger, pain, or anxiety. Singer draws a very clear distinction between personhood and humanity; one can be human, Singer argues, without being sentient-- and without being a person. Animals can be (and usually are, if they are living) sentient, and therefore should be subject to a number of protections.
SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS AND PERSONHOOD
Self-consciousness and personhood are two distinct concepts; determining whether an entity has one or the other is a philosophically complex topic. According to Singer, one of the primary reasons that humans have a responsibility to their animal counterparts are the concepts of self-consciousness and moral status. To Singer, self-consciousness is what makes human beings aware of animals and their moral status, but it is not what makes us responsible for how we treat animals. [What is the difference between sentience and self-consciousness? I think making this more clear will help your reader understand this a bit better.] Instead, the awareness of our interactions with animals and the moral status of animals should make human beings aware of the commonalities that humans share with animals: the capacity for suffering, according to Singer.
The concept of animals and their “moral status” is important to the discussion of animal sentience and morality, and worth investigating further. Moral status is a term used by humans to establish a moral value for non-human beings or things. The line between humans and animals are blurred in many ways, after all Homo sapiens do fall under the kingdom of Animalia in a scientific perspective. The idea of “personhood” is usually used to separate humans from other species in terms of moral status. Kant was one of the first to champion such ideas stating that humans have personhood thus making them have a higher moral status than that of other animals; a person’s personhood, according to Immanuel Kant, was enough to set him above his animal cohorts in terms of moral status (Kant). According to Kant, a human’s duty to behave well towards animals is a duty not to the animals themselves-- since they “cannot judge”-- but to the humanity contained within himself (Kant). The example that Kant gives is a man and his dog: if the man shoots his dog once it has gotten too old to work, then the transgression has been against that man’s humanity, not against the dog, since the dog is unable to judge the morality of this particular act (Kant).
There are many different points of view insofar as personhood, self-consciousness, and moral status are concerned, however. Singer does not share all of Kant’s distinctions between the personhood, moral status, and self-consciousness of animals, but he does draw distinctions between personhood and sentience. These are important distinctions for Singer, as one of the primary questions for Singer considers the presence of suffering for the animal. Does Kant’s dog have an understanding of the unfairness of the actions of its master? If it is dead, it clearly does not, but if-- to change the hypothetical-- the man began to abuse the old dog, science does suggest that the dog would be aware of its suffering and the unfairness of its owners actions to a certain extent. To Singer, this distinction is clear: the suffering of the animal is the commonality that gives all animals and all persons moral status, rather than the ability to use logic and think rationally.
Perhaps one of Singer’s strongest points is his issue with the idea that moral status is equal among humans. To Singer, to state that all human beings are above all animals is a ridiculous notion. Every day, human beings commit monstrous acts; some human beings are even without personhood, according to Singer (Singer). Not all humans are as moral as others. Many factors go into determining if a human is moral or not. It is impossible to fathom that ALL humans are moral and other species are not. However, equal moral consideration refers to equal consideration for equal interests. This differs from moral status, because it doesn’t compare species against each other moral but instead focuses on their individual interests.
This is not to say that Singer consistently puts animals on the same philosophical plane as human beings with full personhood; this is decidedly not the case. Instead, Singer writes: “The capacity for suffering is the vital characteristic that entitles a being to equal consideration the capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way if a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration if a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, then there is nothing to be taken into account. That is why the limit of sentience is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others” (Singer 60). It would be easy, after reading this quote, to misinterpret what Singer means by the balance of the interests of animals and the interests of human beings. Some might consider the idea that Singer believes that because animals are sentient, they must be given equal moral status to people who have full personhood; this is not what Singer is suggesting. Rather, he is suggesting that Kant’s perspective is flawed: harming animals who are sentient and can feel pain and suffering is wrong on the basis of the animal’s sentience alone, rather than on the basis of the inhumanity of the act (Singer).
Singer goes on to make attempts to establish the idea that because animals can feel pain and suffering, human beings must not cause them undue harm; he expands this argument to mean that human beings cannot kill and eat animals for food, because it infringes upon the natural moral status that animals are entitled to because of their sentience. However, the extension and extrapolation of this argument weakens the argument rather than strengthening it, because there is a natural order by which the food chain works. Had Singer tried to establish a proper method for acting as humans have for millennia, his argument would have been more engaging; instead, he slips from a philosophical stance to a political one quite quickly, and it weakens the overall structure of his argument.
There are very real moral implications that can be investigated insofar as animal cruelty and the meaning of human interaction with animals is concerned. However, Singer’s view on morality, consciousness, and personhood does not detract from Kant’s initial question of whether it lessens our collective humanity to engage in acts that are cruel towards animals. One could easily postulate that Kant’s view and Singer’s view are not necessarily mutually exclusive in some respects-- both would probably agree that an undue act of cruelty lessens one’s humanity.
Aristotle. "Animals and Slavery." In Animal Rights and Human Obligations. By Singer, Peter and T Regan. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 109-110. Online.
Frey, R. G. Interests and rights. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980. Online.
Kant, Immanuel. "Duties to Animals." In Animal Rights and Human Obligations. By Singer, Peter and T Regan. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 122-123. Online.
National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes. Sydney: National Health and Medical Research Council, 2004. Online.
Regan, Tom. The case for animal rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Online.
Rollins, Bernard E. "The moral status of animals and their use as experimental subjects." A Companion to Bioethics. By Kuhse, Helga and Peter Singer. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. Online.
Singer, Peter. Animal liberation. New York: New York Review, 1975. Online.