Why non-human animals
do have a right to life

Author: DDr. Martin Balluch, Verein Gegen Tierfabriken, Austria

Rational, as opposed to religious Ethics

"What should I do?" – This is the central question in our life. Continually we are confronted with alternative options for dealing with situations and have to decide which course of action to take. As long as the decision we make affects only ourselves, it is not really anybody else's business. When it comes to how we treat each other, though, both individually and in terms of society at large e.g. regarding laws, on which basis do we make our decisions?

One could also formulate the question at the beginning as follows: What is good and what is bad? We can reason that I should do good and refrain from bad. Is the distinction between good and bad, however, as is so often argued, a question of religion and spirituality? Whereas non-religious assessment of this kind is regarded as materialistic, or even egotistic and in any case, only referring to advantages of the assessing individual itself, nothing but true religion supposedly can deliver an absolute assessment. But what is actually true religion?

Religion is only a belief, without any factual, scientific basis. Unlike empirical-rational statements, religious ones neither can be justified nor do they allow for criticism. They can not be a basis for a decision affecting society as a whole because in the absence of rational argument no free consensus can be found. If we do base our decisions on what is good or bad on religion, then there remains only violence to force this opinion on others. Without rational, empirical arguments I have no hope of convincing anyone.

Is it true that there cannot be rational arguments on what is good or bad? The following observation, which dates back to Socrates, is in this respect of interest to us. To the question of whether a religious truth can ever be unethical, believers mostly answer that a true religion shows itself through not having any unethical truths. By saying that, believers are themselves making the distinction between "good" in a non-religious sense and "good" in a religious sense. If a religion stipulates, for example, that children be tortured, then torture of children is, for this religion, "good". We, however, would consider this stipulation as unethical or "bad". In the words of the believers, this would be an unethical religious truth. We have therefore an opinion of what "good" is that appears to be independent from religion. Since the enlightenment, we can see a slow and unsteady, but nevertheless real development in society in the direction of general human rights and individual freedom – away from torture, the death penalty and slavery. This development, with its own idea of "good", had to be fought for, against religious resistance, for it was not a consequence of any religion.

Consciousness, from the perspective of the natural sciences

One reason why a person could think that religion should be called upon for the consideration of ethical questions lies in the phenomenon of consciousness. I use the term consciousness to mean that which vanishes when I become unconscious. When I am fully unconscious I have no sensations. As long as I am conscious I have continuous sensations. Therefore, consciousness is the ability to have sensations.

On first inspection it seems appropriate to separate matter and mind, body and consciousness, into different categories. While matter and body are determined by natural laws described by the natural sciences, mind and consciousness, being immaterial, do not. They therefore must be religiously determined. But on closer inspection this division does not bare up to scrutiny. Consciousness is clearly caused by physical, or to be more exact, by neurobiological conditions. Consciousness can be influenced chemically; it can be literally turned off using anaesthetics, or through direct intervention, personality and character, as a whole or present emotional states, can be affected or changed. There is no reason to suppose that consciousness should not be comprehensible within natural scientific terms. In any case, there is no alternative but to try.

The body of any being is separated from its surroundings by its skin, within which an internal environment is created; this internal state must be maintained for the being to continue existing. In order to achieve that, the being's body might use automatic processes for regulation, for example, through a network of nerves. This self-regulation works more effectively when there is a central control centre: the brain. Such a nervous system is called a central nervous system.

It is not only the nerve path ways from all parts of the body that come together in the brain, the whole body is also represented in different brain regions. When the body is interacting with the environment, this action is "simulated" in the brain. Consciousness then, according to neurobiology, is a non-verbal commentary on these happenings, an assessment and evaluation, i.e. an understanding of the action, being facilitated by yet other parts of the brain.

My ability to be conscious must be the result of the evolution of my ancestors. In order for consciousness to evolve, it must have a measurable effect on the actions of conscious beings. How does an action with consciousness differ from one without consciousness?

A computer blindly and unconsciously follows the commands from its software. It receives an input that it processes according to the software rules and converts into an output, for example, to solve a mathematical problem I could simulate this computer activity by taking the same input, following the same operational commands, thereby manipulating the input, and be able to, albeit slower than the computer, get to the same output. In order to do this, however, I need not understand what I am doing. I do not need to know anything about mathematics or even the problem at hand, let alone how to solve it. If I follow a set procedure, as a computer does, consciousness plays no role. Since consciousness has evolved, it must be something different than mere following computational commands. Consciousness must have an affect on an action over and above that of a computer program operating on a set scheme of operational commands. And this effect of consciousness on acting corresponds with the ability to decide on the basis of values.

Values, the ability to suffer and autonomy

In the course of my daily life I am continuously confronted with decisions to be made; whether I should do this or that, what I should give priority to and what I should ignore, and what importance I should give to my personal gains in respect to how those gains may affect others and, in a wider perspective, society. In other words, I evaluate. When I give some things priority over others, I am giving them a higher value than the others. When I give, in this case, higher priority to my own gains than to society, I am valuing my own gains higher than those of society, and so on. In this way we can see that I have values and they determine my decisions and in turn, my behaviour.

Values form the cornerstones of my decisions, but, where do they come from? Let us imagine that on my right I have a tomato salad and on my left a potato salad. Which one do I reach for? Maybe I am not hungry or do not fancy salad and I therefore ignore them both. Or maybe I associate tomato salad with being ill because the last time I ate tomato salad I was ill, and therefore reach for the potato salad. Or I might have an unconscious association with the pleasant social occasion on which I last ate tomato salad, which underpins my choice. It could just as well be that I have found out that the tomatoes have been grown using pesticides or that they have been transported huge distances to reach me, and I therefore made a conscious decision to take the potato salad.

I can, therefore, have conscious and unconscious reasons for my decisions and in turn, my values. They both have in common the fact that they make up the basis for my decisions. This basis can, therefore, be unconscious, although the decision itself is conscious. Values develop in our consciousness and trigger a conscious decision there. This is autonomy. Thus, the ability to evaluate stands and falls with the ability to decide, i.e. autonomy, and is directly associated with consciousness. Autonomy is the fundamental characteristic of consciousness.

The ability to suffer is a special case of this characteristic of consciousness to evaluate and autonomously decide on the basis of those values. To stay with the above discussed example: if the tomato salad is rotten and eating it would make me ill, then I would reach for the fresh potato salad. The suffering that I would experience through being ill is valued by me as negative. Not to suffer then, is a positive value. Therefore, the ability to suffer is one of many possible reasons for an evaluation which makes up the foundation for my decisions. Accordingly, the ability to suffer is dependent on consciousness.

From values to animal rights

Every being that possesses consciousness is able to act autonomously or intentionally, meaning, that it can decide whether it wants this or that. It is exactly this which is the evolutionary function of consciousness. And in order for this being to be able to decide between different options it must make conscious evaluations. These evaluations are necessarily subjective. They correspond to the particular value system of the evaluating being. And this value system is determined through many different things, for example its genetic make-up and its experiences to date. "Good" and "bad" are relative, i.e. things are good or bad always in relation to the (unconscious) interests or the conscious aims of a being with consciousness.

Does that mean that all ethics, since they are based on values, have to remain subjective? Yes and no. Most values certainly remain subjective, but some values have a categorical existence, which is by necessity the same for every being that is able to have values and in that sense objective.

When I want to play chess for example, I need to find someone to play with, a chess board and pieces, time and so on. But, aside from these obvious things there are also certain other basic requirements which are implicitly needed, for example, my heart beat. I cannot play chess without a heart beat – I would simply die. For all activities that I could wish to do, three basic requirements are always necessary: I must be alive, I must be free to act and I must be unharmed. These three basic requirements – life, liberty and freedom from harm – are categorically necessary, implicit conditions for being able to act intentionally.

Let us distinguish the conscious will of a being with consciousness and its unconscious interests, i.e. all those requirements that the being is not conscious of, which nevertheless must be fulfilled in order that the being is able to exercise its will. Consequently, it is in the interest of every being with consciousness that it is alive, has liberty and is free from harm. Every being with consciousness values its life, liberty and bodily integrity as good. Life, liberty and bodily integrity are, therefore, categorically good values because every being that is capable of evaluating, values them as good, and in this sense they are objectively good.

In a society like ours, there is an institution with a monopoly on violence. The reason for this is that through the existence of an all powerful institution, such as the police force, all individual acts of violence can be prevented, because they do not stand a chance of defeating this all powerful institution. Thus, this all powerful institution has a monopoly on violence in society. With this monopoly on violence comes a great responsibility. After all, the all powerful institution is in the position of implementing all manner of values. Accordingly, society has invented rights to certain things of the individual, which are guarantees that this institution will respect those things and assure that others within society will respect them.

I have consciousness and therefore, a will. Hence it is in my interest to have life, freedom and bodily integrity. So, I demand rights to life, liberty and bodily integrity from the all powerful institution in society, because I have consciousness. When I now want to be rationally consistent, or in other words, want to follow a rational ethic, then I must demand simultaneously the same right to life, liberty and bodily integrity for all beings with consciousness. These beings also fulfil the same requirements that I have for validating my own demands.

The same is true in the following instance; let's say, for example, that I demand a pay rise because I have a PhD. After all, it proves I have had a better education than those who haven't got a PhD, I argue. Even when it is subjectively of no interest to me whether others with the same education also receive a pay rise, I must nevertheless, if I wish to be rationally consistent, also simultaneously at least implicitly demand the same pay rise for others holding a PhD. This is the difference between acting on an objective-rational rather than a subjective-emotional basis.

All beings, who, firstly, have consciousness, secondly, act on a rational basis and, thirdly, understand that because they are conscious, they have an interest in their life, freedom and bodily integrity, and hence demand rights for those interests from society, must of necessity demand the same rights for life, freedom and bodily integrity for all beings with consciousness. The basis for this is autonomy. The basic rights for life, freedom and bodily integrity are instrumental to safeguard the autonomy of the being, which has them. But this right to autonomy is different from the pathocentric view to minimize suffering. Sometimes, an autonomous life means more suffering. But we all still prefer autonomy, than have others decide for us, what we have to do, even if that might mean less suffering.

How do we recognize consciousness in other beings?

What remains to be done is to find empirically which beings possess consciousness and which don't. There must be empirical ways to find this out, as consciousness is a phenomenon that is part of natural science, since the conscious beings must act differently to non-conscious beings, otherwise consciousness would not have evolved.

To find that a being responds to stimulus or shows pain is not enough to prove the existence of consciousness, since those processes can take place without it, by simple nervous or physiological reactions. It is known that a pain reaction of the body does not have to be accompanied by the conscious experience of pain. Also, instinctive actions or learning by conditioning does not suffice for a proof of the existence of consciousness, since those things can be simulated by neuronal networks that can be programmed on a computer. But, conversely, the fact that a being sometimes acts instinctively or conditioned does not show that it cannot be conscious. After all, I have consciousness, and I do sometimes act instinctively and I most definitely can be conditioned.

Empirical criteria for consciousness are not straight forward to come by, since we have to look for activity that cannot be simulated by computer programs. But every single action taken by itself can be simulated. Only if we do not know in advance the sort of problems we will encounter, will it be impossible to right a program that can fully simulate a conscious being. Also, a defining characteristic of consciousness is that it does not always act the very same way to the same problem, hence its actions cannot necessarily be reproduced under controlled conditions of a scientific experiment.

Still, we can find criteria for consciousness, which can convince us of its existence in a being, if those criteria surface sufficiently often and under changing circumstances. For example, if we find a being is learning through comprehension instead of through conditioning, or if it shows through adequate flexible reactions to different problems that it has understood those problems, or if it orders its perceived world through sensible concepts and categories, or if it develops true culture in a group and so forth. Ethological studies prove this way that at least all vertebrates and cephalopods fulfil such criteria is a convincing way. Correspondingly, for reasons or rational consistency, those beings deserve the same rights to life, liberty and bodily integrity that we award to ourselves.

Do different lives have an objective value?

Since those rights above were introduced in a categorical way, they do not depend on the amount a certain capacity is present in a being. Instead, those all beings with consciousness deserve those rights equally. There is no possibility to introduce a hierarchy for those possessing rights at this point.

However, if there is a genuine conflict, i.e. if resources for rights bearers are restricted, so that not all of them can survive or live on unharmed, then we demand of concepts of practical ethics an answer how to deal with this problem. But such a decision cannot be made objectively and hence can't be part of rational-objective ethics. There is no way to attach an objective value to the different lives of different individuals that can be compared with each other. The value a being puts to life is always dependent on the value system of itself, its own personal preferences.

I might try to put myself into the shoes of each of two beings with their own values and preference systems and compare afterwards which life I found of more value. But that does not work as there is no objective, interindividual preference system according to which I could evaluate the two lives and their values. For each individual, its own life is of infinite value, as it is a necessary condition to want and hence value anything at all. Since there is no higher subjective value, we don't have an objective way of measuring and comparing those values of two different beings.

Conscious pain and suffering, for example, exist to force those beings, who experience them, to attend to the cause for them, and do something to prevent further harm to their body. Life threatening pain is, correspondingly, the maximum possible pain to force the suffering being to mobilize all its potentials to avoid the cause in order to survive. For that reason it is impossible to say one being can suffer more than another. Maximum pain is maximum pain, each individually for each being, and is equal in this sense. And maximum pain corresponds to the value each being is putting to its life. You can compare the pain between individuals, if you compare the percentage of maximum pain each individual is suffering under certain circumstances. If a horse suffers 1% of its maximum pain when being slapped, and a human baby suffers 80% of its maximum pain when being slapped the same, I can safely say that the horse suffers less under these circumstances than the human baby. So, only relative pain levels for each individual are comparable, not absolutes. There is no way to objectively compare absolute pain, maximum pain or the value of life of different individuals. Hence we cannot objectively put a value to the different lives of beings. However, a mere subjective hierarchy of values for different lives cannot find consensus. Who would be willing to have their lives count for less than others' lives?

In practice, real conflicts do demand solutions, but they have to stay subjective and not generally applicable. We could invent pragmatic rules like "first come first serve". Or those, who help, have the freedom to decide themselves subjectively whom to help first, like relatives and friends first, or those suffering most. Society, or whoever else is in the possession of those resources, could invent distributory rules decided on by majority. However those conflicts are resolved, we must be aware that they do not have an objective resolution and that there is no absolute difference in the value of the lives of conscious beings.

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