Just how far should we expand the circle of ethics?

Right now I am reading Peter Singer’s book The Expanding Circle. It’s a good book so far. It’s clear, well-argued, and written with a sense of moral urgency. The central argument is that due to the way ethical reasoning works on the basis of impartiality, it would be arbitrary to restrict the moral community to a single group, such as your own tribe, gender, or race. Hence, the evolution of morality over the years is moving (and will hopefully continue to move) in the direction of ever greater impartiality as seen by societal advances in abolition, woman’s right’s, etc. However, Singer also argues that we should expand to circle of ethics beyond the human realm to all other sentient creatures capable of feeling pleasure or pain. Singer argues that it would be just as arbitrary to restrict ethical considerations to humans as it would be to restrict them to a certain class of humans.

But then how far down the evolutionary continuum should we go? Singer thinks we should probably draw the line around oysters and the like, since it seems implausible that oysters are capable of feeling pleasure or pain. And Singer definitely thinks we should not expand the circle to include inanimate entities like mountains or streams. So what’s so special about the ability to feel pleasure or pain? Singer thinks that this capacity is a nonarbitrary dividing line because it’s something that humans can take into consideration. On what basis could we include mountains and streams into our moral deliberation? There seems to be none. But the fellow capacity to feel pleasure and pain seems like a good candidate.

This is where I must disagree with Singer. I simply don’t see what’s so morally special about the ability to detect cellular damage. And that is all pain perception really is. It’s an evolved biological mechanism that registers damage to cells and then relays that information to appropriate motor centers to move the creature out of harm’s way, which increases the biological fitness of the creature, maintaining homeostasis and organisational structure. Vegetarians like Singer loathe this line of thinking because it brings to mind the old practice of torturing cats and dogs because Descartes argued they can’t really feel pleasure or pain because animals are simply unfeeling mechanisms. But I don’t think the permissibility of wanton torture follows from the idea that pain perception is just a simply biological mechanism for damage detection. Even if it is permissible to use animals for food, it doesn’t follow that it’s permissible to torture them for fun. Even if it’s permissible to eat animals for food, we might still be obligated to treat them with respect and try to lower the occurrence of pain to it’s absolute minimum. But, personally, I believe that just having the capacity to feel pain doesn’t launch you into the moral category whereby it becomes impermissible to be used for food for humans.

I’ve heard it claimed that this kind of speciesism is injustifiable if we consider the cognitive capacities of those who are extremely mentally handicapped or incapacitated. Since presumably I think speciesism is justifiable because humans are cognitively superior to nonhuman animals, then it should be ok to treat cognitively inferior humans just like we do cattle. Since we wouldn’t think it’s ok to do this to mental invalids, we can’t just use cognitive superiority to justify the way we treat nonhuman animals. My immediate response to this is that there is a difference between entities who, if everything had been biologically optimal, could have developed to the human cognitive level, and entities who could never reach that level despite being developed in optimal biological conditions. This principle of potentiality is enough to show how it’s nonarbitrary to treat human invalids different from nonhuman animals.

 There’s another point I want to make about the moral worth of pain itself. How could it be of that much importance when nonhuman animals themselves seem to be indifferent to it compared to the typical human response to pain? I read in Euan MacPhail’s The Evolution of Consciousness that there have been field reports of chimps getting into fights with other males, having their testicles bitten off, and immediately afterwards being capable of having sex with a female. I doubt there is any human who is horny enough to ignore the pain of having their genitals mutilated just to have sex. On the basis of this observation, we can infer that chimp pain perception is different from the awareness of pain that humans possess. And since chimps are seen by people like Singer as being the most worthy of our ethical consideration, what does this say about the pain capacities of animals even lower down the totum pole than chimps? Nonhuman animals don’t seem to “care” about their pain to the same extent that humans do. Caring about pain as opposed to pain itself goes by another name: suffering i.e meta-consciousness of pain. While it is plausible that some nonhuman animals have the capacity for a kind of protosuffering, it seems clear to me that human suffering is of a level of sophistication far beyond that of any nonhuman animal. Now, I don’t have a clear argument for why human suffering is more morally valuable than the mere pain of nonhuman animals, but it is at least a nonarbitrary cutting off point and one that has a kind of intuitive support.

However, I don’t think the moral worth of human suffering over nonhuman pain is enough to justify the claim that nonhuman pain has no moral worth at all. As a matter of fact, I agree with Singer that the pain of nonhuman sentient beings does have some moral worth, and that we are obligated, ultimately, to reduce that pain. For this reason, if I was presented in a supermarket with the choice of eating real beef or artificial beef grown in a lab, I would choose the artificial beef. So the only reason I am not a non-meateater is because the right technology has not been invented yet. As  soon as that technology becomes available (and they are working on it), I will gladly give up my practice of eating meat. But since I believe that eating meat is a very healthy way to get protein and animal fats into my diet, I do not think the current pains of nonhuman animals is enough to overcome the selfishness involved in maintaining my own health, for I value my own life over those of nonhuman animals. Again, this is not because I don’t place any value in nonhuman life. In my ideal world, not a single sentient entity would ever feel unnecessary pain. I feel predation to be evil, but I nevertheless eat animals for health reasons. If I sincerely thought vegetarianism was healthier than an omnivorous diet, I would be a vegetarian (which would be nice because it would line up with my beliefs in the evils of predation). But since I am a speciesist and value human life more than nonhuman life, I think it is permissible for me to continue my practice until the technology of artificial meat becomes widely available. I’m aware of the possibility that this reasoning could be nothing more than a post-hoc rationalization of my comfortable habits of meat eating. But I do think that there is a nonarbitrary argument to be made for speciesism that makes the exclusion of nonhuman animals from the moral sphere far less arbitrary than the exclusion of subclasses of humans. Contra Singer, I don’t think speciesism is equal to racism or sexism.


Filed under Philosophy

11 responses to “Just how far should we expand the circle of ethics?

  1. Michael

    Would the potential of fertilized human eggs under optimal conditions extend the same obligations to them?

    • Gary Williams


      I think that a consequentialist calculus would show that it makes the world better if we abort human fetuses that are unwanted or going to grow up in pain and misery. The same thing could not be said of killing mental invalids who are already alive and capable of feeling pain or pleasure. The point of the potential of human entities is simply to differentiate human invalids and babies from nonhuman animals in a nonarbitary way that is not based on current capacities for higher cognition. However, the moral value of the potential of human fetuses to develop into full humans does not override the value to the mother of aborting the fetus. Thus, human fetuses do not have the same moral value as adult humans, though they have some value in comparison with nonhuman animals.

  2. gary, i appreciate your thoughts. i do however have a few questions/suggestions: (1) the claim that somehow the need to consume animal fats directly from animals is something that has been really put into doubt recently. in fact, the difficulty that the body has in breaking down animal fats is really starting to be noted. so while there are certain amino acids that we can find only in directly consuming red meat, such amino acids are hardly essential for the flourishing of the human body. usually, these amino acids are used as part of bulking up methods for those who are seeking to grow muscle mass. and because they don’t break down so easily, the average, non-athlete human is often times damaged by consuming red meat (of course this says nothing about consuming chicken and fish but i have some other queries to that regard); (2) you make the claim that you would welcome the introduction of certain technological advancements in meat production. my concern with this line of thinking is twofold; one, the damage such fabrication has proved to cause in certain ecological systems (for instance the manipulation of corn/soy products which has led to the quicker and more intense emergence of harmful bacteria) and two, the thus-far-demonstrated health problems such genetic manipulation brings about. i’m not trying to claim that somehow there are purely ‘natural’ means by which we ought to farm meat and other agriculture. rather i’m merely noting that the supposed universal benefits from genetic food production seems to be just another myth of modernity. and (3) i think the argument for non-meat consumption ought to run much deeper than mere arguments from sympathy/empathy (while noting there is in the least some force contained therein). that is, i think there are serious ethical considerations that even staunch humanists ought to consider. for example, in the us alone, the amount of meat we throw away per year would adequately feed the entire southern hemisphere. or likewise, the factory farming industries in the us have proven track records of placing profit over health by injecting rbst/rbgh hormones into livestock to increase production which then in turn creates all manner of health problems (of course this argument only implies that a change ought to take place in the system and the regulations therein, but still it does seem to indicate that some changes need to take place… and if such is the case then continuing to support such an industry is placing one as somewhat complicit within it, no?). so it seems that there are some serious considerations for being vegetarian (or really just eating ‘responsibly’ in whatever capacity possible) that exceed the frameworks of general debate.

    • Gary Williams

      Hi Austin,

      Thanks for your nice comments. My concerns about animal fats are not related to ease of digestion, but rather, to the macronutrient ratios involved in a low-carb diet. I try to avoid too many carbs (especially refined carby products that have a lot of sugar) because I think there is good evidence that a high-carb diet has negative health consequences, especially in terms of how carbs translate into body fat, affect insulin resistance, and contribute to issues like coronary inflammation. Eating low-carb is important to me because it helps me maintain my body weight. Also, low-carb is important because by necessity if you eat low-carb then you are eating a lot of proteins and fats, particularly “good fats”. I just don’t see how it’s possible to eat low-carb on a vegetarian diet given the high prevalence of grains in a vegetarian diet. Btw, I’m getting most of my information about carbs from science journalist Gary Taubes, particularly his book “Good Calories, Bad Calories”, which I highly recommend. His research suggests that red meat is perfectly harmless and that most of the famous scientific studies which show negative health effects for saturated fat are based on flawed methodologies as well as influenced by lobbyists for Big Agriculture.

      As for your second point about the dangers of genetic manipulation, etc., I don’t see how that’s relevant to the technology of artificially grown meat. This is what I’m talking about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_vitro_meat

      In vitro meat would have nothing to do with current factory farming methods as it is not derived from any living animal. If it was fully developed to a commercial level, then we wouldn’t no longer need to kill animals for their meat.

      Your most serious objection is about whether my continued purchasing of meat derived from factory farming makes me complicit in the harms such practices have. I would say that I am in fact complicit. I would of course prefer to buy my meat from local farms that use better farming technique, but as far as I know, such meat is too expensive for my current graduate student budget. If I could afford it, I would buy meat that hasn’t been butchered in a factory farm. I realize this excuse probably doesn’t get me off the hook. But what can I say; I’m not a saint. My actions are probably not the most optimific on any consequentialist calculus. But I could also be doing more to prevent human suffering by donating to charity. So I am less than optimific on the human front as well. But I still sleep soundly. Maybe I am just morally lazy. It’s a tough question of self-analysis. If I sacrificed many current comforts, I could probably do more to make this world a better place. But I don’t think I am alone in having to make such a self-analysis. We could probably all do more to be better people and we all have to balance our own selfishness versus the greater good.

      • right on. i appreciate this stuff. i’ve actually been meaning to read taubes’ book for a bit now. i guess all i can base my assessment on are the bits that i’ve picked up over the years both as an athlete and as a researcher, and as of more recently i’ve become convinced that the human body functions most optimally on a plant-based diet. i mean just from personal experience (as a mixed martial artist) i have noticed tremendous gains in my performance and recovery after switching to a (mostly) veggie diet (i do eat eggs and consume diary products in limited amounts). and the articles that i’ve been coming across of late have seemed to indicate that there are real biological reasons that support my experience (not to mention that many professional nutritionists and professional trainers are recommending this transition more and more; and surprisingly quite a few professional fighters have been going veggie too! it’s the cool thing, man :)).

        re: in vitro meat, i’m not sure i dig the idea that growth hormones might be required for mass production. that’d just re-raise the problems that have been manifest from the rbgh/rbst hormones that are currently injected into produce in the states (and somewhat elsewhere). but again, all that suggests is that better methods be employed. the in vitro meat solution could be interesting in the long run though, if it can be demonstrated to actually produce the benefits that some suggest it might… but it seems that such is a long way off… and it seems to be an awful lot of trouble to go through for something that might not even offer the most optimal health benefits. i guess time will tell.

        and i love your last paragraph! i appreciate the candor 🙂 i admire when someone just admits that he/she just tries to do the best s/he can.

        but really, i think the most serious objection i personally have to meat-based diets derives from socio-economic concerns. thus, it’s thoroughly ethical but not necessarily attached to some argument from moral sentiment attached to the sensory abilities non-human entities. even more than merely being complicit with the factory farming methods, is the support of the corporations that not only participate in such techniques but that also openly commit human rights violations, exploit illegal immigrant workers, pollute the shit out of various ecosystems, etc, etc, etc. and since i have the convictions i have i seek to find alternative means for my own consumption and also i seek to actively support agencies, groups, movements, whatever that are seeking to change the legislation and practices that will determine how the majority of food products are both produced and consumed. thankfully, i live in scotland just now and eating organic, locally sourced food is much easier than doing so in the states! (and it’s a whole lot cheaper here!). but really, in all honesty, a plant-based diet doesn’t have to be expensive. we just have to be creative with our methods of consumption and willing to give up some of our darlings. to me, that’s a cause that i can vibe with.

  3. Bria

    I think I probably agree with you on more points than I disagree with you on, but I’d like to focus on the issue of drawing the line at the potential to develop into a sentient being, under more “biologically optimal” conditions. It reminds me of a piece in Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought” on how we have this tendency to focus on certain aspects of a situation when determining proper conterfactuals and causes. For example, we tend to think that, striking a match “causes” it to burn, because if we hadn’t struck it, it wouldn’t have burned. But, if there hadn’t been enough oxygen in the room, it also wouldn’t have burned, so that our striking it is only one cause. Maybe it is correct to choose our striking as the primary cause, but in general there are more factors that are also quite necessary than the ones we tend to pay attention to.

    So in the case of an organism that could have developed full human cognitive potential, it seems difficult to say for sure what that “could have” really entails. If someone is mentally handicapped because of brain damage, or malnutrition or other damage in the womb or youth, it seems to make sense to say that under more optimal conditions, they would have developed to the status of a sentient adult. But in the case of someone with a genetic disorder that leads to retardation, they only could have become a fully intelligent human by having received different genes, in which case it wouldn’t be the “same” person we’re talking about, and counterfactuals start to make a little less sense.

    And if you allow a reliance just on more fortuitous genes, maybe it isn’t too many steps to say an animal, certainly at least a chimpanzee or dolphin, could have developed to a level of sentience if only it had had a few choice mutations. And if we’re really talking about not the ability to feel pain, but the awareness of it, that’s likely as learned as consciousness itself, and may not necessarily take full-blown human cognizance or our genetic endowment to be capable of that sort of suffering. Likely many animals are perfectly capable of learning suffering instead of pain, and I think probably do, without any advance in their intelligence. Of course we don’t normally eat particularly intelligent animals, so the amount of fortuitous genetic replacements and learning opportunities you have to imagine for there to be biologically optimal conditions leading to a sentient organism increases rapidly for the things we do eat, so it may all be moot in the specifics. However, I do think that the cloudiness of being able to determine counterfactuals and possibilites makes that point as a crux of your argument a little unstable.

    I am a speciesist myself, and I don’t think I’m particularly swayed by the ability to feel pain as the best way to draw the line. But I’m also a little nervous about using anecdotes about particular cases where an animal failed to exhibit suffering as permission to deny either the ability or actuality of their suffering altogether. Part of me thinks the problem lies in trying to find a well-defined line to draw at all; often the basis upon which people make these decisions are not quite those that they either profess or believe they are using, as can be seen by trying to pursue such things to their logical conclusions. It probably is true that most of us just use post-hoc rationalizations to justify opinions forged from an assortment of other emotions and intuitions, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate all of the rationalizations we come up with. I’m quite looking forward to vat-meat myself so that we can just bypass the problem altogether.

    • Gary Williams

      Hi Bria,

      Thanks for the very insightful comment. You raise a lot of good points.

      You are right that “suffering”, by itself, is not the right place to draw a sharp moral line. I didn’t have the time to go unto it fully in the OP, nor have I fully developed this line of thought into a proper argument, but I think that the right place to draw the line is consciousness. In my opinion, consciousness i.e. the reflective self-consciousness typical of normal human adults, is of the ultimate moral value. Less valuable is the nonconsciousness of humans, and after that, the nonconsciousness of nonhuman animals. And I place no moral value on inanimate entities. So I would say that we value human babies and mental invalids more than nonhuman animals because (1) human babies usually grow into conscious human adults and (2) most mental invalids possess some kind of reduced consciousness. Invalids without any consciousness at all nor any capacity to ever develop consciousness usually die naturally or are mercifully euthanized (persistent vegetative coma is one example where I think the moral line becomes fuzzy, since I place more value on consciousness than I do basic organic functions).

      As for the potential of dolphins and other really smart creatures to develop consciousness with a few genetic mutations in the future, I would be the first to welcome them into the moral community. I do not place chickens or cows in the same moral category as dolphins or bonobos, because it is likely dolphins and bonobos are capable of a kind of protoconsciousness, or something at least functionally related to human consciousness (although I suspect human consciousness derives most of its peculiar properties from our being highly linguistic and symbolic creatures).

      So I think the counterfactuals of moral inclusion are the same for invalids who might have turned out normal or chimpanzees who might have mutated into a higher cognitive dimension. But since, as far as I know, chimpanzees do not currently possess a consciousness similar to human adults, I do not place them on the same moral plane as humans, although they are certainly more highly elevated than bacteria and oysters.

  4. oh yeah, i was going to mention one more thing: my diet is fairly low-carb. i really only intake complex carbs when i do consume them (oats, wheat, etc) and i also get a fairly large amount of protein from beans, almonds, chickpeas (i eat lots of hummus!), olives, and various superfoods (kale, chard, goji berries, etc) that all have great vitamin and amino acid concentrations. the key is really that if one is going to take in carbs, which are obviously necessary, that one balance it out with a well-rounded diet and exercise (duh, right?). but the idea that a vegetarian diet must include lots of grains is really (in my mind) just a lazy persons veggie diet. of course… all this said, i do take take protein shake as well (but again, that’s because i’m an athlete and i require most protein than the average person… now who’s the hypocrite!?! ha).

    • Gary Williams

      Hi Austin,

      I am curious as to how healthy you would be if you stopped eating eggs and protein powder. Imo, eggs are one of the most nutritious foods you can consume. And whey protein powder is derived from cheese products, and cheese is also a great source of saturated animal fat.

      Also, I’d be curious as to what you think of this anecdote:


      Clearly, you are not following an all-vegan diet, so this would not apply to you, but if you look online for “ex-vegetarian” or “ex-vegan” stories, you see a lot of similar people saying similar things.

      Imo, the only clear health advantage of a vegetarian diet is that, done properly, you can drastically cut your sugar intake as compared to the typical “American diet”. If you haven’t seen it, check out this video on the dangers of sugar consumption:

      So yeah, going from the American diet to a vegetarian diet will certainly seem wonderful at first because it really is a better diet. But I don’t think the vegetarian diet is as optimific for biological health as a diet that includes animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs. You already know the huge benefits of protein powder for maintaining an athletic build. Of course, I just realized there are vegetarian protein powders. Do you use whey or something else? According to some quick research, it still seems like whey powder has a superior Biological Value (104) compared to rice (83), pea (65). This might be trivial though for all but the most hardcore athletes. Nevertheless, the importance of protein for diet, and the ability to healthily get that protein for animal sources, belies the claim you sometimes hear from vegetarians about omnivorous diets being positively unhealthy. Personally, I buy into the evolutionary story about our diet of biological adaptation being one of meat consumption, since we were hunters and gatherers, after all. And I don’t think the naturalistic fallacy applies here, because the “norm” being supported by evolutionary factors is that of biological health, which is, imo, in the realm of objective science.

      • me personally? if i stopped eating eggs and/or cheese, and if i stopped taking protein shakes (which are whey btw) then i would probably have a hard time building lean muscle and my post-workout recovery time would most likely suffer as well. that said, when i am not training for a competition i don’t take in protein shakes. i still workout but my training is far less intense so i don’t require the same caloric intake (both quantitatively and qualitatively). so, it seems justifiable to argue that the average person need not consume the same nutrients as those who workout intensively. the same goes for certain supplements. recently i started consuming cordycep mushrooms. they are fantastic for my workout recovery. but the average person will most likely not benefit from them. they are really only advantageous for those whose metabolic systems undergo a higher intensity of physical exertion. likewise, the intake of protein that had been suggested for ages past has recently been placed in question, with much research suggesting that for the average person to maintain a high level of health fewer than 20g of protein/day are required (somewhere between 10-20g). so, the plant-based diet does not merely cut out sugar intake but also certain fats that are found in most of our domesticated meat products (cattle and pigs are what i primarily have in mind).

        as for vegan diets, there are quite a few professional fighters that have recently switched to vegan/vegetarian diets. they all seem to say the same thing: quicker recovery, overall increase in performance:


        and then one last thing regarding meat in the west. i honestly don’t want to come across as though i’m making a universal, normative claim that all people ought to be vegan or vegetarian. that’s not what i’m saying at all. again, my perspective is primarily driven by socio-economic concerns. thus, i really just think we ought to consume less meat in the west now, in this time, considering the various exigent situations that we face. i do think there are health benefits for this and i think there are more broadly ethical concerns here as well. for one, the meat that we do produce and consume in the west is more often than not pumped with hormones that we are starting to recognize as causing serious health problems (some researchers are trying to draw links between such hormones and cancer, deficiencies in immune systems, and functionality of neuronal processes, among other studies). second, the meat we consume is by and large filled with unhealthy fats, which is why i tend to agree (based on evolutionary science) that eating those animals that are harder to catch is actually far more beneficial (wild buffalo, elk, fish, etc). while it’s likely true that we as a species have experienced advantages from meat consumption, it’s also likely that such domestication ought to experience an hegelian overcoming of sorts. that is, while it may be true that the shift from nomadism to agrarianism aided in the establishment of complex cultures and our development as a species, it may also be the case that we are now in a position to stop consuming such ‘domesticated’ animals in favor of more fast-twitch animals. this would ensure that our meat intake would not only be quantitatively different but also qualitatively. thus, the quantity of animals consumed would decrease but the quality of the meat would improve.

        as a side note, how do you feel about nootropics? i recently started taking a complex of gpc choline, which increases the production of acetylcholine, which has in turn been linked to enhancement in memory, focus, mental drive, REM sleep states, and the prevention of mental degradation such as in Alzheimers. so far, and this may be a placebo thing, i’m really noticing benefits.

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