The Moral Status of Animals
Human beings usually justify their oppression and exploitation of non-human animals by pointing to supposed empirical differences. Few among the claimed differences is that non-human animals lacks certain psychological capacities, soul, and human genome. Therefore, some humans usually treat non-human animals as things without moral significance. In this article, I will discuss the moral significance of animals by elaborating the aforementioned differences.
What is it that really differentiates human beings morally from non-human animals? Most people will respond by citing some set of psychological capacities which human beings possess but non-human animals lack. For instance, human beings are self-conscious, rational, and autonomous. Human beings also have the ability to use language, and they have a moral sense. However, the problem with that response is that there are some human beings who lack or only possess the aforementioned abilities to the same level as certain animals; such as infants, severely mentally impaired persons, and demented persons. Therefore, if the criteria which determines moral status is the possession of higher psychological abilities, then those human beings who lack or possess the same level of psychological abilities as certain animals should possess equal moral status with those animals.
Another alternative is the notion that human beings have souls, which non-human animals lack. This view is complex, and it is very difficult to defend. According to common understanding, the soul is a non-physical substance which is essential for consciousness and mental activity. Therefore, if the soul is the subject of consciousness, then non-human animals must have souls as they are conscious and sentient creatures. For that reason, there is no deep difference between human beings and non-human animals.
Another possibility is that members of the human species are physically distinct due to their possession of a common genome. In fact, it is not that individual genes are marked as “human”, but the structure of the whole genome is the determining factor of the species membership. This may be the best way to distinguish human beings from non-human animals. But there are decisive reasons for rejecting the assumption that this criteria for membership in the human species is morally significant. Therefore, if moral status is a matter of species membership, then it will be highly implausible to deny a supposed genetically modified chimpanzee with human intelligence a moral status.
All things considered, it seems reasonable to infer that non-human animals does possess some features that are similar to that of human beings, which then give them some certain level of moral significance. Finally, no matter how civilized human beings become, at base, they are just another animal species – arguably the most complex animals. Thus, human beings must have moral obligations to non-human animals.