Do lions have moral rights?

Note: This is the third of several blog posts devoted to Week 6/Module 6 of my business law summer course.

In previous posts I introduced the last module of my business law survey course, which is devoted to “ethics and morality,” and after a brief digression on the relation between law and morality, I then described the “big three” schools of moral philosophy: (1) crude consequentialism, (2) hardcore Kantian moral duties, and (3) ancient Aristotelian virtue ethics. Because of my “Tiger King” theme, the next part of my ethics module contains reading materials and short videos that explore the moral status of animals in light of these various moral theories.

First, I consider the position that our moral duties (however defined) extend to non-human animals, and I attribute this view of “animal moral rights” to Kantian ethics–the idea that morality imposes obligations or duties on us. Although Kant himself did not extend his influential moral theory to the animal kingdom, there is no logical reason why we should exclude animals from Kant’s “categorical imperative.” This Kantian view, however, if taken to its logical conclusion, contains radical and perhaps untenable implications: entire industries like factory farming, medical research, horse racing, etc. would have to shut down!

Next, I present the more “pragmatic” and malleable multi-factored consequentialist perspective in which we consider the competing claims of animals and humans and try to weigh aggregate harms and benefits to all species of a particular course of action or of an entire industry like medical research. Alas, even if we could somehow measure or weigh these competing claims, all consequentialist theories must at some point confront the late Derek Parfit’s famous “repugnant conclusion.” Stated crudely, for example, which of the following is a more desirable (morally speaking) state of affairs:

  • State A. The existence of 1,000 lions, all of whom are free to roam in a large and protected wildlife preserve full of prey and most of whom live long, healthy lives (say, 10 years on average), or
  • State B. The existence of 100,000 lions, all of whom live in cramped cages and are fed subsistence diets and most of whom live short and brutish lives (say, 5 years on average).

To borrow Professor Parfit’s haunting phrase, a consequentialist would have to defend the “repugnant conclusion” that state B is a morally superior state of affairs to state A because 100,000 times five (500,000 lion years) is several orders of magnitude greater than 1,000 times 10 (10,000 lion years), even discounting for the low quality of life of the captive lions. A Kantian, by contrast, would have no trouble choosing state A over state B, since unjustified captivity itself deprives animals of their moral right to live in the wild. (But a Kantian would still have to ask, what about the rights of the unborn? What about the right to exist?)

Lastly, I discuss the moral status of animals from a virtue ethics perspective. Whereas a consequentialist must ask, What are the consequences of acting in a certain way or of following a certain rule, and whereas a Kantian must ask, What are our moral duties in a given situation, a virtue theorist asks a different question altogether: What would a morally virtuous person do in that same situation? In other words, consequentialism and duty ethics both focus on the acts and omissions of human actors, i.e. on the consequences of our acts or omissions or on our moral duties to act, or refrain from acting, in a specified way. Virtue ethics, by contrast, focuses on the actor himself, on his motivations and intentions, on his moral character.

Alas, one of the things that struck me the most about “Tiger King” is the utter lack of moral virtue of many of the protagonists in that docuseries. But at the same time, what exactly is “virtue,” and how do we know whether a particular act or person is virtuous? Alas, all theories of virtue ethics eventually slide into this tragicomic tautology. My point, however, is not to debunk virtue ethics or to champion any of the other “big three” moral theories; my point is simply to show how hard it is to apply general moral principles to a specific scenario like factory farming or medical research.

The bottom line, I believe, is this: most of us would agree that non-human animals, even dangerous and rapacious lions, have the capacity to suffer and that the infliction of unjustified harm (however defined) is morally wrong, but it’s not entirely clear which theory of morality is the best one for grounding this intuition. In any case, I will get around to discussing the business ethics portion of my moral module in my next post.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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