Throughout history, humanity has committed what we now think of as moral atrocities. Some obvious examples are slavery, the subjugation of women, and the persecution of homosexuals. For generations, practices such as these seemed completely normal. We have a remarkable record of being completely oblivious to our moral failings.
Take Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers civilization has produced. He was extremely intelligent and devoted his life to ethical reflection. Despite this, it did not occur to him that owning slaves might be wrong. This is quite astounding and makes one wonder: what moral atrocities are we inadvertently committing today?
If a thinker as impressive as Aristotle was unable to peer through the zeitgeist and perceive a moral failing as blatant as slavery, we should also question our ability to do so today. However, some thinkers have shown that ethical foresight is possible. Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued in the 18th century that homosexuality is acceptable and that women should have the right to vote. How did Bentham succeed in his ethical anticipation? How might we make progress today? And how much progress can we expect to make?
The moral circle
The concept of the moral circle, introduced by historian William Lecky and further developed by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer in his book The Expanding Circle, refers to the boundary humanity draws around those we deem to matter. Singer believes that many past moral developments can be seen as widening this circle of moral consideration.
According to this thesis, in early human history, the circle was restricted to close kin for evolutionary reasons. Indeed, evolutionary biologists have explained kin altruism via kin selection, an evolutionary strategy in which an individual behaves altruistically because it improves the fitness of its close relatives. Singer says that now “The circle of altruism has broadened from the family and tribe to the nation and race, and we are beginning to recognize that our obligations extend to all human beings.” A recent example of moral circle expansion is the greater consideration accorded to the interests of individuals in the LGBT community.
Singer argues that reason has played an important role in this process. By nature, reason is incompatible with inconsistency and arbitrariness, therefore helping us discern cases of prejudice. Once we hop on the “escalator of reason”, we see that our interests, from the “point of view of the universe”, are no more important than the similar interests of others.
We might then ask if there is a logical endpoint of moral circle expansion. Singer argues that “The only justifiable stopping place for the expansion of altruism is the point at which all whose welfare can be affected by our actions are included within the circle of altruism.” In his view, the fundamental criterion determining whether an individual is worthy of moral consideration is sentience: whether they are able to feel, perceive and experience positive and negative subjective states. If an individual is sentient, there can be no justification for not considering their interests.
Bentham’s ethical success was largely due to his application of the sentience criterion. He writes that “[…] The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognised that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.” In his view, “[…] The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Bentham realised that racism is unjustified because sentience is the relevant moral criterion, while skin colour is not. This is useful because it simplifies our search for ethical blindness, allowing us to simply look for cases where we are applying the wrong criterion.
Why does Bentham mention “the number of legs”? Under close inspection, this criterion implies that stopping moral circle expansion at humans is arbitrary. Species is not the relevant moral criterion, and the weight of scientific evidence strongly suggests that many nonhuman animals are sentient. Prominent neuroscientists and other researchers gathered at the University of Cambridge in 2012 to ratify the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which stated that “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” The sentience criterion thus suggests that animals, at least the ones mentioned above, should be included in our moral circle.
Our treatment of animals suggests that we are incorrectly applying species as a moral criterion. In particular, factory farming seems like a leading candidate for a case of our collective moral blindness. If we include only the species mentioned in the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, more than 70 billion animals are slaughtered in farms each year, 90% of whom lived in factory farms. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, writes that in these facilities, farmers “[…] lock animals in tiny cages, mutilate their horns and tails, separate mothers from offspring, and selectively breed monstrosities. The animals suffer greatly […].” Due to the immense suffering, he believes that “Animals are the main victims of history, and the treatment of domesticated animals in industrial farms is perhaps the worst crime in history.” Jeremy Bentham was perhaps not only ahead of his time, but of ours too.
In defence of normative modesty
We can make moral progress by applying the sentience criterion more consistently. However, this limited approach is almost certainly insufficient to expose all of our blindness. Moral philosophy is a field plagued with disagreements of major ethical importance. For instance, are there moral criteria other than sentience? How should we weigh the well-being of individuals who are not yet born, relative to our own? If the answer is “just as much” -i.e. a zero rate of pure time preference- then levels of existential risk are unacceptably high. We are well aware of some of these, such as climate change, but pay much less attention to others, such as nuclear war and engineered pandemics.
Most importantly, there likely remain considerations we do not know about which would radically shift our view of the moral landscape. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom believes that “it is likely that we are overlooking one or more crucial considerations: ideas or arguments that might plausibly reveal the need for not just some minor course adjustment in our endeavours but a major change of direction or priority.” Our poor historical track record suggests that noticing any such consideration is no easy task. Noticing them all is a Herculean one. This implies that we should be more modest and open-minded in our moral opinions. We are all probably wrong in important ways and are likely to remain so for a long time.
If you are interested in learning more about animal welfare or maybe even conducting research in this space, get in touch with Professor Nicolas Treich at TSE. He has created a research agenda on the economics of animal welfare. This work is both theoretical and empirical, including topics like integrating animal utility into the social welfare function, behavioural economics of the “meat paradox” (why people eat meat despite caring about animals), cost-benefit analysis of regulatory actions in favour of animals, and evaluating the welfare effects of human actions on animals in farms and in nature.
By Alexis Carlier
Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. 1780. https://www.econlib.org/library/Bentham/bnthPML.html
Bostrom, Nick. Nick Bostrom’s Home Page. 2019. https://nickbostrom.com
Faunalytics. Global Animal Slaughter Statistics and Charts. 2018. https://faunalytics.org/global-animal-slaughter-statistics-and-charts/
Francis Crick Memorial Conference 2012: Consciousness in Animals. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. 2012. http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf
Harari, Yuval Noah. Industrial Farming is one of the worst crimes in history. The New York Times. 15-09-25.
MacAskill, Will. Moral Progress and Cause X. 2016. https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/moral-progress-and-cause-x/
Sentience Institute. Global Farmed & Factory Farmed Animals Estimates. 2019. https://www.sentienceinstitute.org/global-animal-farming-estimates
Singer, Peter. Is Violence History? The New York Times. 11-10-6.
Singer, Peter. The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress. 2011 ed. Princeton University Press, 2011.