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

What’s Wrong With Dissection Anyway?

CNN reported yesterday (http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/10/14/cutout.dissection.ap/index.html) that 19 year old Jennifer Thornburg officially changed her name to “Cutout Dissection.com” as a way of protesting animal dissection in schools. Her new name also attracts attention to her PETA sponsored website,  http://cutoutdissection.com/ . This story got me thinking about the wrongfulness of dissection. 

As one of the informational brochures distributed by PETA contends,  millions of animals are dissected in schools every year, including frogs, mice, rabbits, fish, worms, and insects. Obviously, I think there are good reasons to ban this practice. Thanks to technological advances, most, if not all, of the educational benefits that are reaped by dissecting these creatures can now be achieved by buying software programs that allow students to engage in virtual dissections.

It should be noted, however, that some organizations, such as the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), believe that the educational value of dissection sometimes justifies the practice. More specifically, the NTSA argues that dissection may be used by a teacher in order to help students develop skills of observation and comparison, discover the shared and unique structures and processes of specific organisms, and develop a greater appreciation for the complexity of life (http://www.nsta.org/about/positions/animals.aspx).

Assuming that dissection does help students develop these skills, would this be enough to justify the practice? In order to answer this question, I think that it is necessary to understand what is wrong with animal dissection in the first place. Dissection is not wrong because the very act of dissecting an animal is harmful to the creature. Since dissection involves cutting into a dead animal (if they are alive, then the process of cutting into the creature is termed a vivisection), this act is no more harmful to them than an autopsy is harmful to a human being. Thus, the wrongfullness of dissection stems not from the act, but from the unjustifiable suffering that is typically caused to animals that are destined to be dissected before they reach the classroom (they are, for example, sometimes kept in small cages and without food in unhygienic rooms for a considerable amount of time). 

If this is truly what’s wrong with animal dissection, those who – like me – are committed to reducing the amount of suffering that humans inflict on animals must ask themselves whether there are ways in which dissection could be justified. What if we only dissect animals who have died of natural causes? If the wrongfulness of animal dissection is the suffering inflicted by humans on animals before they reach the classroom, why would it be wrong to dissect an animal that died as a result of a natural process? Furthermore, assuming that earthworms don’t have the capacity to suffer, why would it be wrong to dissect them? (BTW, I’m aware that the question of whether worms suffer is controversial. There is evidence tending to demonstrate that they don’t – http://www.planetark.com/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/29405/story.htm – but the jury’s still out). 

Although I’m not sure how to answer these questions, I still think that dissection should be banned from the classrooms. Even if it’s unclear whether dissecting earthworms or animals that have died of natural causes is morally objectionable, why do so if computer simulations provide roughly the same educational value? When in doubt, I’d rather experiment on a computer than on an animal.

Luis Chiesa