top of page
  • Writer's pictureCrone


In Kingsthorpe village there's a spring called Kingswell. The water flows down a cleared channel and then into... well, I don't know, a drain. The dog and I had been for a long walk and he couldn't reach the water so I gave him handful after handful. It was a lovely intimate moment as the evening sunlight played on the rippling stream.

I have been thinking about human-animal relationships and whether they can help us navigate our way through the ethical jungle. For utilitarians, the worth of the animal is essentially based on the strength of its cognition: how much can it imagine the future, how much can it suffer, how much pleasure is it capable of? The idea is that a mouse can do less of these things than a chimpanzee, so if you have to sacrifice an animal then it's better to kill the mouse than the chimp. There's a certain common sense reasoning about that. I balk because I don't know that you can abstract suffering and pleasure from the thing that experiences it. I mean, for a mouse, 100% joy is 100% joy - even if a chimp could experience more complex joy. A mouse has only its mouse life and that mouse life to the mouse is infinitely precious, not 15% as precious as the life of a chimp. I am not sure than you can add up the joy in the world abstracted from the subjectivity that is entailed by the concept of joy. If you see what I mean.

Deontologists say that an animal has a right to life and that it is therefore wrong to kill it full stop. Though, if pressed, they'll value a complex life more. That seems better, I guess. But at what point do you draw the line? Midges? Bacteria? I'd go for fish and mammals and reptiles... but I don't know how that justifies eradicating cockroaches or wasps... You're either inside or outside the rights-based community and that seems... troubling. And the ones that are inside are the ones who can be shown to think of the future and the past, reason and so on. It's just that unlike utilitarians, deontologists don't create a sliding scale - they say they are all - beyond a certain level - rights-holders.

Then there are contractualists. Some say animals are just outside the social contract because they can't take part in our social relations. Though of course they do. Working for us, keeping us company, feeding us... But we owe then only duties, they have no intrinsic rights of their own. They are reliant on us for how we choose to value them. We have the might, they are lucky if they're favoured. Surely not.

Mark Rowlands is a contractualist - but he argues that many animals do merit the same rights because they quality as people, through their cognition and selfhood and so on. But they are granted rights only by virtue of how similar they can be argued to be to us in ways that we deem to be morally relevant. Who are we to decide? The ones who set up the contract and thus we have the might. Again.

I don't see why they only matter if they are like us in certain ways. Bernard Rollin and Martha Nussbaum try to articulate ways in which their own capacities, their own ends, and their ability to fulfill those ends are what should be enabled and protected. This seems right. And we do it because... all living beings have ends and like us, all deserve to be allowed to pursue them: survival, freedom, freedom from suffering, procreation, leisure and companionship - dependent on what kind of being one is.

This seems right. But to me, there's still something missing... sometimes we and other animals meet and make friends... and we might change, grow, develop through that... the octopus who met a man and seemed to relish it... is there something, anything, in friendship?

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page