Gary Steiner on the moral status of animals and the “intellectualist” bias

Marilyn tipped me off to this very interesting-looking book by philosopher Gary Steiner: Animals and the Moral Community: Mental Life, Moral Status, and Kinship. Looks like the book came out in 2008, but I wasn’t previously aware of it. Steiner provides a summary of the book’s argument here .

Interestingly, Steiner takes a tack that is opposed to that of at least some animal advocates. These advocates have argued that, contrary to what we’ve previously thought, animals really do have capacities for complex thought, reasoning, self-awareness, etc., and that we should attribute moral status to them accordingly. Steiner maintains, however, that these capacities are morally irrelevant and it’s enough that animals have “rich inner lives”–lives of their own that are entitled to respect regardless of how closely they approximate human lives.

Steiner isn’t the first to make this sort of argument. In his contribution to the anthology The Great Ape Project, which promotes extending basic rights to the great apes, philosopher Steven Sapontzis contends that the bias toward the intellectually sophisticated is just one aspect of our species bias:

Rejecting our species bias–overcoming speciesism–requires that we also reject our bias in favor of the intellectual (at least as a criterion of the value of life or of personhood in the evaluative sense). Overcoming speciesism requires going beyond the modest extension of our moral horizons to include intellectually sophisticated, nonhuman animals, such as chimpanzees and whales. It requires recognizing not only that the origin of value does not lie in anything that is peculiarly human; it also requires recognizing that the origin of value does not lie in anything that is human-like or that humans may be assured they have the most of (because they are the most intellectually sophisticated beings around). (“Aping Persons – Pro and Con,” The Great Ape Project, p. 271)

Using intellectual sophistication as a criterion of moral worth can have uncomfortable consequences even apart from the question of animal rights. For one, wouldn’t it introduce a hierarchical ranking among human beings such that the more intellectually sophisticated, reflective, etc. people were worth more, morally speaking, than others? And wouldn’t it also imply that an extraterrestrial species far exceeding us in intellectual sophistication would be morally more valuable than us, and perhaps even justified in using us the way we use nonhuman animals?

Steiner’s book also tries to reconcile liberal rights and individualism with the apparently heavy demands that the recognition of animals’ moral status would make on us. He offers what he calls an “Ideal of Cosmic Holism” in which human beings are understood as “a special form of life—a form of life that is capable of reflecting on its own nature, and hence of taking on moral responsibilities, but whose capacities for critical reflection do not render it morally superior to non-human nature.”

Human beings are in the unique position of being able to recognize and act on moral obligations toward animals (and perhaps toward non-sentient nature as well), even though non-human beings lack the capacity for reflection and hence lack the ability to take on reciprocal obligations toward humanity. Our moral relationship to animals is one of stewardship: we have obligations to protect animals and to refrain from interfering with their efforts to flourish according to their natures, even though animals have no corresponding obligations toward us. The fact that for millennia we have exploited animals with little if any self-restraint is a sign not that we have any right to do so but simply that we have failed to acknowledge our place within a cosmic whole of which we are merely a part.

I don’t know what religious affiliation, if any, Steiner has, but this is remarkably consonant with the Christian view of humanity’s place in the cosmos (or at least the Christian view, properly understood), so I’m very interested in seeing the details of how he works this out. Unfortunately, the book is a bit on the pricey side, so unless CUP wants to send me a review copy, you may have to wait a while for my take on his argument, dear reader. 😉

One thought on “Gary Steiner on the moral status of animals and the “intellectualist” bias

  1. I think that Mark Rowlands took that further, arguing the moral superiority of wolf to ape. So this is interesting.

    I tend to read Genesis as suggesting a special status, and think that stewards fits quite nicely. But I also agree that when we try to make a philosophical case based upon perceived attributes, we’re often painfully shortsighted. “Rich inner lives” is a promising category. But what if by some standards we turn out to be impoverished? Who knows what kind of metaphors an electric eel would be capable of conceiving? G.K. Chesterton once wrote a poem about the meanings of smells to a dog. It’s called “The Song of Quoodle” (and very worth looking up). Here is the first stanza:

    They haven’t got no noses,
    The fallen sons of Eve;
    Even the smell of roses
    Is not what they supposes;
    But more than mind discloses
    And more than men believe.

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