Where should we draw the insuperable line? What morally significant difference separates moral agents from other living things? Many historical and present-day injustices occur not because the groups involved didn’t know that certain acts were wrong (many normative theories converge on what constitutes right action in easy cases), but because one group failed to include some other group within the scope of its moral community (e.g., Jews during WWII or Blacks in America before the mid-19th Century). Many injustices involve a problem of scope.
This question in animal ethics has been debated thoroughly, maybe to the point where it too could be relegated to the pile of unresolved issues that ultimately depend on one’s metaphysical commitments. Maybe reason has done all that it can?
The animal rights defender Tom Regan (1983) argued that any attempts to limit the scope of rights to humans based on some capacity is rationally defective for two reasons: (1) some humans lack the identified capacity and (2) some animals have it. Regan’s argument seems right that any identified criterion will face these difficulties (along with difficulties in specifying exactly the nature of the capacity (e.g., autonomy) and determining whether it is animals who lack it or humans who have failed to design experiments to measure it). The unapologetic speciesist Carl Cohen (1986) responds that it is not about patterns of measurable external behavior, but about having the requisite internal mental state. He ultimately claims it was never a matter of exhibiting a capacity, but about being a certain kind of being.
Instead of identifying a criterion for moral status, maybe one promising way forward is to focus on what humans have and its ramifications. Humans often have authority over animals. I think we can set aside what capacities humans have that enable them to have authority or whether they should have authority. We can simply begin with the fact that humans often have authority over certain animals and then think about what this entails.
Authority, according to Joseph Raz, is a species of normative power, which he defines as a power to effect a normative change or change a person’s reasons for action (1979; 1990). Raz’s conception of authority consists of two, among others, distinct moral theses, the dependence and normal justification theses, which together provide moral justification for authority (1986; 2009).
Dependence Thesis (DT): “all authoritative directives should be based on reasons which already independently apply to the subjects of the directives and are relevant to their action in the circumstances covered by the directive” (1986, p. 47).
Normal Justification Thesis (NJT): Authority is justified when, “…the alleged subject is likely better to comply with reasons which apply to him…if he accepts the directives of the alleged authority as authoritatively binding and tries to follow them, rather than by trying to follow the reasons which apply to him directly” (1986, p. 53).
Raz’s account is called a service conception because, as reflected in the dependence thesis, the primary role of authority is to serve one’s subjects and address the reasons that apply to them. While I don’t agree entirely with Raz’s conception, I do think that justified authority includes something like DT and NJT.
If this is what we mean by having justified authority over another, what does this entail?
Basically, this: with authority comes responsibility. The word “authority” may bring to mind the state or law enforcement, but another paradigmatic example is a parent’s power over a child. A five-year-old child has good reasons to eat her vegetables, but would better achieve those reasons (e.g., health) by complying with her mother’s directive “Eat your vegetables!” than if the child was left to her own devices. I’m using the parent-child example because a child may not have developed reasoning skills to come up with her own reasons or even the capacity to act for those reasons. From an objective or third-personal perspective, we can observe that a child has these reasons that apply to her and that she would be better off if she listened to her mother.
If it is true that humans have authority over nonhuman animals, and if we want our exercise of power to be morally justified—an instance of de jure authority as opposed to de facto authority, then it should be consistent with DT and NJT. Humans have power over animals in various ways. Animals are kept in captivity and used for various purposes, including companionship, agriculture, experiments, and entertainment. Human caretakers have control over things that animals need, such as food, water, shelter, sufficient space or territory, exercise, and social interaction. Human caretakers can impose rules and practices that provide animals with their species-specific needs and promote their species-specific behaviors or they can impose rules that deprive animals of these things. Consistent with DT, human rules regarding captive animals should be based on reasons that already apply to them. Consistent with NJT, human rules over captive animals should help them to achieve the reasons that apply to them than if they were left to their own devices. Human rules regarding animals should serve to help animals achieve their species-specific needs and behaviors.
Justified authority is demanding in its application to both humans and animals; some may call it ideal. Nevertheless, many of us may agree that it is how we ought to live. When we exercise power over other humans, we ought to use our power in ways that would help those we serve, especially those who are vulnerable and dependent on us. When we exercise power over animals, we similarly ought to use our power in ways that recognize that with great authority comes great responsibility (see Palmer 2011). Our current use of animals are the result of historical practices and modern institutional standards, but it need not always be this way. We ought to be humbled by our responsibility and seek to change our practices and standards to be more consistent with these necessary conditions of de jure authority.