What is the principle of the equal consideration of interests

In the 1970s, Australian ethics philosopher Peter Singer introduced the principle of the equal consideration of interests to conversations about animal liberation. Although aspects of this principle are problematic (more about this later in the article!), its influence has been undeniably far-reaching.

To summarise, this principle states that:

All beings with interests (all beings who are capable of enjoyment or suffering, broadly construed) deserve to have those interests taken into account in any moral decision-making that affects them; furthermore, the kind of consideration a being deserves should depend on the nature of the interests it has (what kinds of enjoyment or suffering it is capable of), not on the species it happens to belong to.

(Source: Britannica)

As we saw in our recent blog on speciesism, there are many theorists and philosophers (e.g. Peter Singer, Tom Regan, David Nibert and Gary L Francione) who believe that discrimination against non-human animals is as morally wrong as and similar in dynamics to racism or sexism.

We can see examples of what they mean by this within domestication and industrialised animal agriculture (indeed, all animal farming), each of which has had catastrophic consequences for trillions of individual animals, biodiversity and climate and ecological breakdown.

Although Singer was talking about the equal consideration of interests almost 50 years ago and against a backdrop of various liberation movements in the 60s and 70s, the principle remains at the core of the animal freedom movement today.

We wanted to talk about the equal consideration of interests in today’s blog because it is often referenced and offers a good introduction to why justice for all must include justice for non-human animals.

Arguments against the equal consideration of interests

With speciesism so entrenched, there are many people who reject Singer’s equal consideration of interests.

One of the most common arguments against it is that non-human animals are not moral beings. If they don’t understand right or wrong or have a sense of duty then, it’s argued, they cannot be afforded moral status.

Other theories in the field of animal ethics state that non-human animals should be given some moral consideration because they are sentient beings (sentience being seen as a reason not to cause direct harm) but that, where the interests of humans and other animals conflict, humans should always be given priority because of their rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness.

Another distinction supporters of speciesism make is that humans are the only beings with the ability to form plans for a non-immediate future, which sets them apart from other animals.

The equal consideration of interests challenges these arguments

The equal consideration of interests challenges all of these arguments and hinges on these key points:

  1. Human equality is a moral ideal rather than a claim about the actual equality of human characteristics – we only have to look around us to see that there is a huge disparity among humans regardless of what measure we choose to use. Like it or not, people come in different shapes and sizes with different physical and mental capabilities (characteristics frequently used to reason why humans should take precedence over other animals). It’s impossible to assert that all humans are actually equal.
  2. According to this moral ideal of equality, the interests of every human affected by an action should be taken into account and given the same weight as the like interest of any other human.
  3. The capacity for suffering is viewed as a prerequisite for having interests and so must also be a prerequisite for moral equality.
  4. Species other than humans have the capacity for suffering.

In light of the points above, we should extend the ideal of moral equality to other species, as most of us recognise is appropriate within our own species, despite knowing that some individuals lack certain “human” characteristics.

Equal consideration does not mean identical outcomes

People who disagree with Singer often use the right to vote as an example of why other animals couldn’t be given the same rights as humans, citing the suffrage movement and women’s rights for comparison.

The argument goes that women could be given the same right to vote as men because they are capable of understanding what voting is and what their vote would mean. A dog though (as one example) couldn’t be given the right to vote because they wouldn’t understand its purpose.

In response to this, Singer has reasoned,

“The extension of the basic principle of equality from one group to another does not imply that we must treat both groups in exactly the same way, or grant exactly the same rights to both groups. The basic principle of equality, I shall argue, is equality of consideration; and equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights”.

In other words, it isn’t that humans and other animals should be treated the same but that we must consider the needs of both groups, giving equal weight to those needs.

What do we mean by equality when we talk about humans?

As mentioned above, Singer states that equality is a moral ideal rather than a fact. He highlights these key points:

~ There is no “actual equality”

If we think about humans, it’s clear that actual equality doesn’t exist. Take any trait as a measurement – intelligence, strength, rationality, forward-planning, etc. – and some humans would clearly perform better using that criteria than others.

~ Humans as “on average equal”

Another way that people view equality is to say that we are all “on average equal”.

Although every individual will have their own unique mix of characteristics and capabilities, there isn’t much to separate us as an average across our species.

In his book, Putting Humans First, ethical philosopher Tibor Machan supported this position by saying that classifications or the distinction of “on average equal” is common sense. A broken chair, Machan argued, is still a chair, not something other, like a monkey or a palm tree. In the same way, humans – when classified as a group – are broadly equal and cannot be compared to other species.

~ The dangers of “on average equal”

Singer’s principle of the equal consideration of interests points out the flaws in the arguments above.

On the surface, the concept of “on average equal” sounds like a powerful way to end discrimination, at least in human society.

A white racist might argue that white people are superior to black people. However, this is clearly false because, although there are some differences between individuals, some black people are superior to some white people across all the traits that might be used as a measure of superiority. If we take all black people and all white people though, these differences will even out on average, making both groups equal.

While this is a rational argument against racism or sexism, it’s still problematic for anyone concerned with equality.

As Singer reasons, under the concept of “on average equal”, what would happen if you took a measurable trait where some individuals would be demonstrably superior and others, therefore, inferior?

For example, science tells us that 68% of humans have an average IQ somewhere between 85 and 115. So, if a society decided that people with an IQ over 120 should be given priority as they can be proven to be above average for that trait, how could we refute that? After all, everyone in the preferred group has the measurable, prized trait that would put them at the top of the hierarchy.

Would it be right to give this group’s interests greater consideration? At least 68% of the population would say no!

Another danger with the “on average equal” argument is that there may be some differences between groups of humans. For example, while some women may be stronger than some men, on average, men remain larger and stronger than women, possessing 26lbs (10kg) of skeletal muscle, 40% more upper-body strength and 33% more lower-body strength.

Here, “on average equal” could actually be used to justify discrimination in a society that prized strength above any other trait.

~ Equality as a moral ideal

The majority of people accept that equality doesn’t depend on “matters of fact” such as intelligence, strength, endurance, reasoning, moral capacity, or similar.

For a start, who would decide which of these traits should be given priority?

Should we give more weight to the interests of those who are physically strong or those who have a higher IQ? There would be no fair way to decide and everyone would have a different perspective based on their own bias.

As such, we can logically agree that, even if there is a factual difference between the abilities of two individuals, it isn’t appropriate to prioritise the needs and interests of one over the other.

This is a moral principle of how to treat all humans, i.e. with equal consideration of their interests, even though it rarely happens in the real world.

~ How the moral ideal of equality extends to others

Singer’s core argument is that the interests of all humans are due equal consideration, regardless of what they are like as a person or the individual abilities they possess.

Now, this doesn’t mean that everybody must have their interests considered by the same criteria.

Different groups of humans have different needs. The principle of equality is that everyone should have equal opportunities to express what these needs are and for those needs to have the same weight in decision-making as other represented groups.

But Singer takes this argument a step further.

If we can accept that it’s morally wrong for a human with a high IQ to exploit a human with a lower IQ, then how can we justify exploiting non-human animals on the grounds of humans having superior intelligence, moral capacity, rationality, and so on?

The argument from marginal cases

The “argument from marginal cases” explores this further.

It points out that if we can argue that human infants, people with dementia, those in comas or the cognitively disabled (i.e. marginalised groups of humans) have direct moral status when their interests are considered, then non-human animals should have a similar status.

After all, there may be many individuals within these groups who aren’t able to plan for the future, lack self-awareness or are unable to discern right from wrong. In fact, some non-human animals may exceed some humans in these groups when measured using “matter of fact” traits.

Many so-called “marginal case” humans lack moral characteristics and yet most of us would vehemently defend their right to equal consideration of interests. Fundamentally, this comes down to a belief that these individuals may suffer if their rights aren’t considered fairly.

How can we believe that all humans should have equal moral status because they have a capacity to suffer and yet refuse the same moral status to other sentient beings who are also capable of suffering?

This is often referred to as “proof by contradiction”.

Of course, there are those that challenge the argument from marginal cases.

Tibor Machan, for example, believed that while some humans lack moral agency, perhaps due to age or ill health, in general people possess that capacity, while non-human animals don’t.

Moral philosopher Roderick Long supports this by saying, “That is why a cow has no rights, though a human being reduced to the mental level of a cow does have them. There’s something wrong with the human; there’s nothing wrong with the cow. One might say that in the case of the cow-minded human, there’s a blank spot where her moral agency is supposed to be, and someone else can step into that blank spot and act as an agent on her behalf. But in the cow, there’s no blank spot”.

Looking beyond Singer

We must look beyond Singer to counter the above arguments.

Singer doesn’t believe in the moral rights of other animals and so, to a degree, would probably agree with Long’s view about their moral agency.

Singer’s stance is utilitarian in nature, meaning that he believes particular acts of suffering could be justified if they serve to increase the “collective good”. Singer does not condemn all experimentation on other animals, for example, and has supported cases where it might lead to a scientific cure for illness or disease in humans. As such, his is still a speciesist position.

The case for animal rights

In light of this, many people who advocate for animal rights turn to philosopher Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights, published in 1983. (It’s well worth watching this interview with Tom Regan on the Late Late Show in 2001 for some insights into his thinking).

Regan believed that all “subjects-of-a-life” possess inherent value and must be treated as an end-in-themselves, never as a means to an end.

Although Regan has often been described as “the father of animal rights”, it’s a title that he rejected. His belief was that no human can give rights to other animals because they have actually had moral rights all along. It’s just that we are only now beginning to discover or recognise them.

Regan argues that any being that is a “subject-of-a-life” should be afforded moral status when considering their interests. The most fundamental of these moral rights is their equal right to be treated with respect, including the right not to be treated as things or resources for another.

He defines subjects-of-life as this:

[It] involves more than merely being alive and more than merely being conscious. … individuals are subjects-of-a-life if they have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference- and welfare-interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their experiential life fares well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for others and logically independently of their being the object of anyone else’s interests. Those who satisfy the subject-of-a-life criterion themselves have a distinctive kind of value – inherent value – and are not to be viewed or treated as mere receptacles.

Regan felt that most “normally mental mammals” over a year old, including most humans, fulfil these criteria, as well as some species of birds and fish. Ultimately, he reasoned, they are the subjects of experience whose lives matter to them as individuals, even if they don’t matter to anyone else.

But does Regan go far enough? The subject-of-a-life criteria only apply to a fraction of the living beings on our planet. Surely, all animals have inherent value that shouldn’t be exploited?

Sentience as the only criteria

This is Gary L Francione’s stance and represents the evolution of Regan’s argument. Francione’s work focuses on three key issues: the property status of animals, the differences between animal rights and animal welfare, and the belief that animal rights should be based on sentience alone rather than on any other cognitive characteristics or subject-of-a-life criteria.

Francione argues that animal welfare regulation simply serves to prolong the status of non-human animals as property and makes humans feel comfortable about using them as resources as long as they’re treated “humanely”.

It’s Francione’s stance – and ours at Ethical Globe – that non-human animals shouldn’t be required to have any cognitive characteristic beyond sentience in order to be part of the moral community.

He does draw on Singer’s principle of equal consideration in the context that the interests of non-human animals viewed as property can never be given equal consideration and that this has to change.

Why does Singers’ philosophy prevail?

To date, Singer’s utilitarianism has been a dominant philosophy in the animal rights movement, but it clearly has its limitations.

Perhaps Singer’s position has endured because it offers plenty of grey areas for those who resist change. Eating animal flesh, experimenting on animals, using animals for entertainment and more can all be justified with a utilitarian view of doing what will bring the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Regan and Francione’s arguments condemn the use of all other animals, even if it would improve aggregate welfare, on the grounds that it goes against the moral rights that are inherent in sentience or being the subject-of-a-life.

This has far bigger implications for corporate power that currently shapes our world.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, we’d love you to read our other articles about animal freedom as well as the resources linked to in this blog.


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