against those beyond boundaries – whether the boundaries of our nation, or our species – that allows suffering to continue when we could easily reduce it. I hope you will join me in reconsidering these boundaries and reducing suffering wherever it occurs. First broadcast as part of BBC Radio Four’s Iconoclasts series, produced in association with RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) on September 6. Reproduced by kind permission.
first response The claim that equal interests matter equally wherever they are – in humans or animals or, for that matter, Martians – seems to me unassailable. Its recognition has led to a transformation of moral thinking, and it is enough to show the wrongness of traditional attitudes to animal suffering, and – with a few more twists of argument – of ideas about the sanctity of human life that have ruled out euthanasia. I have no disagreement with any of this. What remain, however, are genuine problems about the extent to which accepting the objectively equal importance of equal interests should be interpreted as a requirement to treat them as equal in practice. Here are two characteristic problems. First, the principle does not in itself say anything about the relative importance of different kinds of interest – or, indeed, about the value of other things than interests. (Has life any value, other than its value to the living?) Every sentient being has an interest in not suffering, but few people would accept that avoidance of suffering was the supreme good – with the implication, inter alia , that the world would be better with nothing but blue-green algae. But if other things matter, how much do they matter? For instance, how much does artistic and scientific achievement matter? If Mill’s higher pleasures matter a great deal, as many of us think, what should we make of the evidence that they could not have come about without the enslavement of animals and other humans? Would the world have been better if they had not been enslaved? A principle of equal consideration of equal interests cannot provide the answer. Second, if we actually tried to act on the basis of counting everyone’s interests as mattering equally, we could not give any special privileges to family or friends. Love and friendship are necessarily partial, but we have
The Philosophers' Magazine /4th quarter 2006
From a moral viewpoint there is a profound distinction between humans and other animals
no conception of what a good human life would be without them. If everyone treated everyone’s interests as equally important in practice, nobody would have anything of real value. Such issues need handling with care, since they are often presented as counterexamples to the idea of equal consideration. They are not. All they show is that the translation of ground-level impartiality into practice is extremely complicated, and depends on how different kinds of goods are valued. Ground level impartiality is the beginning of serious moral enquiry, but a long way from the end. Janet Radliffe Richards
second response The comparison that Peter Singer makes between racism and sexism, on the one hand, and so-called “discrimination” against non-human animals, on the other, is ill-founded. Racists and sexists discriminate against people who are fundamentally equal. So-called “speciesists” assert something that is factually true: that there is a fundamental moral distinction between humans and other animals. Humans are clearly animals, evolved beings with evolved minds. But humans are also distinct from all other animals by virtue of being subjects : rational, autonomous moral beings who are, in Kant’s phrase, self-willing. Equal rights derive