Animal Rights and the Wrongness of Killing

9. Conclusion

Book cover: Animal Rights and Human Obligations by T. Regan and P. Singer

The killing of a human being is judged with the utmost seriousness in most ethical and legal systems. The killing of an animal typically does not garner the same level of consideration, the act often being treated as a mere adjunct to human concerns. This essay explored the ethical principles and moral reasoning underpinning such a dualist approach to killing. Examining first rights-based and social contract theories, I argued that these theories failed to capture within a coherent framework all of our obligations; especially to children and mental defectives. Similarly, utilitarian approaches to grounding moral rights either demote our obligations to these same moral entities or ignore the deontic nature of rights.

The necessarily impartial nature of ethical discourse combined with a naturalistic view of duty led me to adopt a utilitarian schema for deriving our obligations to moral entities. From considering what things have intrinsic value, I concluded that the beings to which we owe direct duties are those that are sentient. The higher the being's level of sentience, I argued, the stronger is our obligation to avoid killing it. This means that our prima facie obligation to avoid killing higher-order mammals, such as apes and human beings, is more stringent than our obligation to avoid killing vertebrates with a lower level of neurophysiological complexity.

A complication arose when we considered the relative wrongness of killing a single human being compared with the killing of many animals with lower levels of sentience. I demonstrated how the traditional 'total' and 'average' utilitarian maximizing principles did not do justice to our considered moral judgments. To remedy the problems with these traditional views, I formulated four utility maximization postulates that combined the insights of the 'total' and 'average' views and I further refined my 'mixed' view maximizing principle. On the basis of the revised principle, I demonstrated how it accounted for our intuition that below a certain threshold level of sentience, no number of deaths of animals could outweigh the wrongness of the killing of one human being.

I considered the objection that the 'mental state' theory of value combined with the 'mixed' view maximizing principle I advocate does not adequately account for the greater seriousness with which we treat the killing of a self-conscious being compared with the killing of a merely conscious being. My discussion of the difficulties faced by Singer's preference utilitarianism and his 'prior existence' maximizing principle illustrated how using my framework avoids the inconsistencies and complexities faced by his view. I demonstrated how my schema accounts directly for the greater gravity we attribute to the killing of a self-conscious being while providing a coherent and credible framework for guiding our moral judgements on killing across the whole animal spectrum.

The story does not end here. Further discussion needs to be embarked on with the aim of gaining a consensus on the threshold level of sentience below which no number of killings will outweigh the killing of a single human being. More work also needs to be expended on refining the 'mixed' view maximizing principle so that it can be applied to a greater range of scenarios with more mathematical elegance.

Even though the theory is in its infancy, the framework that I have developed here is a significant step forward in ethical theory. It explains in a systematic and consistent fashion the increasing seriousness with which we view the killing of an animal as we progress along the continuum of increasing neurophysiological complexity. It also accounts for our judgements about the greater wrong committed in killing a self-conscious being compared with the killing of a merely conscious animal. Most importantly, it accords sentient animals the status of primary moral entities to which we owe direct moral obligations. Hence, the implications of the conclusions reached in this essay are far reaching. These findings impact on a host of issues in human and animal ethics where sanctity of life arguments dominate. They are well-placed to inform our attitudes to wild-life hunting, factory farming, scientific experiments on embryos and animals, euthanasia and abortion.[24]


  1. [24] I am indebted to Christopher Bartley [La Trobe University] for discussing with me some of the issues raised in this essay and to Professor Peter Singer for his thoughts and critical comments on an earlier version of this essay.

Copyright © 2015

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