Why is murdering a human being worse than wrongfully killing a nonhuman animal?

Killing an animal in violation of anti-cruelty statutes is universally punished less severely than murdering a human being. Is this practice morally justifiable? I believe it is. In order to understand why, we must transcend the “sentience argument”. Both animal welfare and animal rights advocates believe that the rights/interests of animals stem from the fact that they’re sentient beings. Animals should be protected from torture, for example, because they can feel pain. Given that causing pain is the paradigmatic instance of wrongful conduct, society should criminalize unjustifiably inflicting pain on animals.

The sentience argument cannot explain why killing a human being is prima facie more wrongful than killing a nonhuman animal. Since both human and nonhuman animals have the capacity to feel pain, it would seem that harming them is equally wrongful. What, then, accounts for the generalized intuition that murder is worse than wrongfully killing an animal? In my opinion, what typically entitles humans to more protection than nonhuman animals is that they possess morally relevant traits that animals lack – a capacity for self-consciousness and an acute awareness of the future.

These traits matter because beings that are self-aware and have a sense of the future are more prone to suffering than creatures lacking these features. Self-conscious beings, for example, fear death not only because of the possible pain that the process of dying might cause, but also because of the suffering that having advanced knowledge of one’s demise might cause (think of the suffering of a prisoner in death row who agonizes when he contemplates his future death). Furthermore, since self-conscious beings that are aware of the passage of time make plans for the future, killing them entails not only terminating their existence, but also taking from them the possibility to fulfill their plans and aspirations. Killing beings lacking these characteristics does not harm them in the same way. Given that they have no awareness of the future, they are not conscious of the significance of their death. Since they lack the ability to plan for tomorrow, they have no sense of the meaning of death or of what they lose by not waking up the next morning.

I acknowledge that some animal law advocates may object to my proposal because it might be interpreted to afford rights depending on the degree of similarity that exists between nonhuman creatures and human beings. In spite of this possible criticism, the view I propose here should not be rejected as speciesist because the distinctions drawn here are not grounded on the basis of the being belonging to a particular species, even if it is claimed that some species deserve more protection than others. Ultimately, the amount of legal protection is dependent on the being’s capacity for self-consciousness and awareness of the future, not its belonging to a particular species. The fact that human beings typically share those traits is beside the point, for what really matters is the traits, not the species.

Luis Chiesa

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8 Responses

  1. Actually, my understanding is that current knowledge supports the proposition that elephants may well have a cognitive understanding of the nature, inevitability and irreversibility of death.

    One aspect of Professor Chiesa’s interesting analysis is that like the basis upon which Roe v. Wade was decided (a decision I totally support), the state of medical knowledge at the time, it opens the possibility that research may reveal that species other than elephants have traits related to awareness of mortality. Then what? Do we ascribe to particular non-human species a higher life value and, correspondingly, a greater sanction for those who unlawfully shorten their time on earth? Quite a slipper slope.

    Of course there are many humans who because of genetic miscarriage, accident or even violent crime possess no cognitive awareness of their inevitable death (or of anything else). They’re not big planners for the future. Would we admit evidence of incapacity to think of a future as a mitigating factor in sentencing a murderer? I think not.

    So my answer is a flat no and it is based on the historic and immutable difference between humans and other animals.

  2. [...] animalblawg put an intriguing blog post on Why is murdering a human being worse than wrongfully killing a …Here’s a quick excerptBoth animal welfare and animal rights advocates believe that the rights/interests of animals stem from the fact that they’re sentient beings. Animals should be protected from torture, for example, because they can feel pain. … [...]

  3. So the Animal Blawg, in a complete aboutface, is now arguing that nonhuman animal lives are, and ought to be, less ‘valued’ than human animal lives? And by appeal to the most antiquated, easily-debunked rhetorics of “self-consciousness”? This is a most disturbing, and unexpected turn … I wonder how David Cassuto feels about this …

  4. Well, Luis and I disagree on this but I respect his views. And, since neither he nor I speak for the blawg and since the blawg itself doesn’t have a stated position, I’m happy that he’s bringing the debate to the fore.

    For my part, I am uncomfortable excluding animals from the realm of the self-conscious and also from awareness of the future. And, even if animals did lack either or both, I would remain uncertain that such absence makes death any more palatable when it occurs.

    I further maintain that even if we assume (as I do) that most animals do not comprehend why or how they have been commodified and deprived of their freedom but rather know only the fear and despair of captivity, that they suffer *more* not less from the tortures humans routinely inflict.

    So, those are my two cents.
    –David

  5. My colleague Luis wonders what justifies the belief that “killing a human being is prima facie more wrongful than killing a nonhuman animal.” At first blush the question seems misconceived. An action as such is either wrong or it is not. One may speak of degrees of culpability and degrees of resulting harm. But right and wrong themselves (when stripped of these all-important but collateral concerns) are binary. Thus, if one were to sacrifice an animal life to save a human life (when facing that awful choice), some might say that “she chose the lesser evil,” but that would only mean that she chose to minimize harm. She nevertheless chose an evil.

    So what accounts for the “universally” observed legal difference in punishments under anti-cruelty and murder laws? Empirically the most likely explanation lies in the various retributive emotions and urges which, for sound biological reasons, became part of the human psychological repertoire through natural selection during the Pleistocene epoch or before. Although these biological feelings are deeply rooted (much as, say, our feelings of hunger for food), they work today primarily as a profound moral miscue. While they were no doubt very useful in a different time and place, they have little to tell us now about what is, and is not, morally wrong. They do, however, affect our legislation, which is to be expected since laws in a democracy tend to respond to moral cues and miscues.

    In sum, if we mean to ask what actually causes the distinction in the punishments under anti-cruelty laws and murder statutes, it unlikely that it can be ascribed either to different levels of sentience or to capacity for self-consciousness. On the other hand, if we mean to ask what justifies the distinction, the answers are likely to be as diverse as the moral systems to which different people adhere. Luis’s harm-regarding principle is, however, probably among of the more appealing.

  6. Is murdering a human being worse than (wrongfully) killing a nonhuman animal?
    In absolute sense : good or bad, better or worse are relative indications. To be killed : is it worse for the human who is killed than for an annimal that is killed ? I would say : it is for both the end and hence, objectively the same.
    Obviously the point of view of the one who kills (and those who judge the one who kills) is completely different.
    In some times and places humans were valued no better than animals, provided they looked a bit different, think of slavery.
    So the values and senses of good and bad for what we do to other living beings only depends on what we were thought during our lives. And so the discussion will only end if we all get exactly the same education …
    See also http://zyxo.wordpress.com/2008/05/17/the-differences-between-animals-and-humans/

  7. I’ve re-read this argument, and I still can’t appreciate it, for several reasons:

    Drawing from some of the other comments, I do not think we can, or that it is wise to, draw levels of suffering. All creatures have a desire to live, and a desire to avoid pain. Why is it important to go beyond that in determining which violator deserves greater punishment? Suffering is suffering.

    I agree with Prof. Stein that contemplation of the future and the value of one’s life is a dangerous slope. If there is evidence that someone did not think about the future, should that mitigate the crime? If a murderer kills someone suddenly without forewarning, then spends decades on death row, does not the murderer suffer greater than the victim, making the eventual death of the murderer a worse crime?

    Prof. Chiesa is trying to rationalize a very troubling and central problem in the animal/human distinction, but I think the theory works better as a retroactive analysis than it does at explaining why this distinction evolved. I have always seen it more in terms of a social contract. Humans need each other to exist in a society. We need cooperation. If someone starts killing other humans, it hurts society’s production, and it makes that person a threat to the existence of the society. Alternatively, if someone kills an animal, the property owner’s rights are harmed, and the animal himself is harmed, but, at least when it is only one animal, society can continue, and there is not as great a risk that said person is a danger to other humans.

    I realize that explanation is a bit simplistic, but through it I understand why killing a human receives greater punishment. Trying to explain the difference in terms of a greater capacity for loss and suffering is too elegant; the animal/human divide is simply, if I can use this term, antiquated speciesism.

  8. [...] killing an animal is morally wrong. I agree with Professor Leiter for the reasons I point out here and here. That why I did not vote for this [...]

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