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Philosophy 220. The Moral Status of the Non-Human World: Matheny. Animals and Moral Standing.

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Philosophy 220

Philosophy 220

The Moral Status of the Non-Human World: Matheny

Animals and moral standing
Animals and Moral Standing

  • As we saw in our discussion of abortion, the question of the possible Direct Moral Standing of the fetus has a number of implications for the attempt to specify the moral status/standing of non-human animals.

  • Issue tends to resolve into two questions:

    • Do any non-human animals have DMS?

    • If so, what does this mean for the wide-spread use of animals (or other natural kinds) in a way dominated by human interests?

The traditional answer
The Traditional Answer

  • The traditional answer, rooted in among other places the revealed texts of the traditional monotheisms, is dominion.

    • In other words, non-human animals do not have DMS.

  • One response to this line of reasoning is to employ a label like those familiar to us.

    • Speciesism: "the systematic discrimination against the members of some species by members of another species"(331).

What do the mts say
What do the MTs Say?

  • Consequentialism: according to traditional utilitarianism, the value to be maximized is pleasure (the absence of pain). Inasmuch as many or our uses of non-human animals or other natural kinds come at the cost of significant pain or degradation, this approach would find those uses to be immoral.

  • Rights: the issue here is whether non-human animals or other natural kinds have rights morally equivalent to those of humans. It is not a question of political rights, but moral rights.

  • Virtue Ethics: as always, the question concerns whether our use of animals or the natural world as a whole accords with human flourishing and the virtues necessary for it. One common focus is the virtue of humility.

Matheny utilitarianism and animals
Matheny, “Utilitarianism and Animals”

  • Matheny begins by characterizing the use we make of non-human animals to satisfy our nutritional needs/desires.

  • He cites data from 2001, but here’s some data for the U.S. in 2010 (from

  • Overall, around 29 billion animals were slaughtered for food in the US in 2010.This number includes:

    • 23,627,000 ducks

    • 35,330,800 cattle

    • 110,367,000 pigs

    • 242,619,000 turkeys

    • 8,790,478,000 chickens

    • 7.3 billion fish

    • 12 billion shellfish

Equal consideration
“Equal Consideration”

  • Matheny’s working assumption is one that he finds common to both secular and religious ethics.

  • It is essentially the impartialism that we’ve talked about in the past: equality of consideration.

  • Matheny formulates this impartialism as the “Principle of Equal Consideration of Interests” (334c1).

    • It is essentially a constraint that requires us to balance our interests against the interests of other relevant parties and make decisions based on their relative strengths.

    • Justified by reference to more basic principles of fairness, justice and benevolence.

Matheny on utilitarianism
Matheny on Utilitarianism

  • Matheny is a utilitarian, and (in a good example of the sort of thing I you to do in the reflection papers) he provides us with a brief summary of the theory before he puts it to work.

  • He defines U in the context of his equal consideration principle as the rule, “act in such a way as to maximize the expected satisfaction of interests in the world, equally considered” (334c2).

    • A quick rule of thumb: what would it be like if I had to live the lives of all individuals affected by my action?

  • His version of U embodies the following (familiar) principles:

    • Universalist: takes into account all affected parties.

    • Welfarist: Theory of value focuses on welfare.

    • Consequentialist: value sought in consequences of actions

    • Aggregative: maximizing theory

Advantages of u
Advantages of U

  • Matheny then goes on to specify a number of advantages that Utilitarianism has over other competing theories.

    • It’s consequentialist focus requires us to understand as much about the world around us as possible.

    • It allows for both specific evaluations as well as rule-based reasoning that makes our moral lives more practically possible.

    • It’s aggregative nature give us traction on a number of issues where a (roughly) cost-benefit analysis seems necessary.

The argument pt 1
The Argument (Pt. 1)

  • Being sentient (having the capacity to feel pleasure and pain) is sufficient (enough) for having interests, including being free from pain and suffering.

  • Many nonhuman animals are sentient.

    Thus (from 1 & 2),

  • Many nonhuman animals have interests, including being free from pain and suffering.

The argument pt 2
The Argument (Pt. 2)

  • Many nonhuman animals have interests, including being from pain and suffering.

  • An action is morally right (permissible) only if the like interests of all who will be affected by one’s action are given equal weight by one’s action.

    Thus (from 3 & 4 ),

  • An action is morally right only if the like interests (pleasure and pain) of all who will be affected by one’s action, including nonhuman animals, are given equal weight by one’s action.


  • Matheny’s argument concludes that the property that grants Direct Moral Standing is sentience.

  • As we’ve seen, there are a number of accounts of DMS that would disagree (including, DMS=soul; DMS=biological humanity; DMS=rational capacity).

  • Ultimately, Matheny rejects all of these competing claims, mostly for reasons that we’ve observed in previous discussions.

  • Interests in pleasure and the absence of pain seem to be the only non-question begging and sufficiently inclusive grounds to serve as the basis for assigning DMS.

    • In this Matheny finds himself in good company: Bentham (337-8).

Cashing it out eating
Cashing it out: Eating

  • By far the most significant way in which we ignore the interests of non-human animals to further our own is through animal agri- and aqua-culture.

    • Intensive animal farming/harvesting causes significant amounts of pain and suffering.

    • We have no nutritional need for animal products. Our interest in them is for our pleasure.

    • We can’t discount our interests, but if we apply the equal consideration principle, and put ourselves in the place of the farmed animals, “We would probably conclude that our substantial interest in not being raised in a factory farm and slaughtered is stronger than our trivial interest in eating a chicken instead of chickpeas” (338c2).

Cashing it out laboratories
Cashing it Out: Laboratories

  • Here too, an analysis of competing interests would lead to the conclusion that most use of animals as experimental subjects fails to satisfy the principle.

  • Matheny identifies two tests that we can use to determine if this is the case.

    • Balance of pain test: “In every case, we should ask if the pain prevented by an experiment is greater than the pain caused by that experiment” (339c2). If not, experimentation is wrong.

    • Infant substitution test: “Would researchers contemplating an animal experiment be place an orphaned infant in the animal's place?” (Ibid.).

Cashing it out wildlife
Cashing it out: Wildlife

  • Many of our activities have a profound negative effects on the welfare of the wild animals that share our environment.

  • As the previous observations have suggested, Matheny believes that we should consider carefully how to balance our interests against the morally relevant interests of wild animals.

  • Relevant concerns include: resource extraction, pollution, population, land use.


  • On the assumption that Utilitarianism is a reasonable theoretical basis for considering the question of the moral status of non-human animals, the most important conclusion is that such animals have DMS, and thus should count in our moral calculations.

  • If right, a strong presumption exists for the moral superiority of veganism, for the significant if not total reduction of the use of animals in experimentation, and for a very different approach to our interaction with the environing world.