Pains and Obligations

 Posted by on 2 March 2004 at 10:28 am  Uncategorized
Mar 022004

In my Environmental Philosophy class, we’ve been discussing Tom Regan’s arguments for animal rights and Peter Singer’s arguments for animal liberation. These two philosophers appeal to quite different philosophical mechanisms to justify sweeping legal protections for animals: intrinsic value for Regan and hedonistic utilitarianism for Singer. (As a result of this difference, Regan’s protections for animals are far more sweeping than Singer’s.)

Nonetheless, one argument common to them both Regan and Singer is that if legal rights or moral obligations attempt to single out humans by appealing to intelligence, capacity to reason, or whatnot, then such rights/obligations will either be too narrow (by excluding retarded people, babies, and so on) or too broad (by including higher primates, dolphins, fetuses). For reasons which I won’t delve into here, I think this basic line of attack is wrong. (I’m likely to write my final paper for class on the subject though, so I’ll surely say more on the topic later. From an Objectivist perspective, one major frustration of all these debates is that their strong tendency to float disconnected from the reality of the basic purpose of legal rights/moral obligations.)

For both Regan and Singer, a major relevant fact for determining our moral and legal obligations to other creatures is whether they have a capacity to suffer. This is particularly true for Singer, who (as a utilitarian) is concerned with pleasures and pains. But it is also true for Regan, whose concern is that conscious creatures are “the experiencing subjects of a life.” For both, the physical pain we cause animals in the course of confinement, slaughter, and so on is critical.

So I wonder what Singer and Regan would say about this poor little girl who is utterly unable to feel physical pain. Both would likely say that we still have obligations towards her. For Singer, she can still experience happiness. Yet the harms this small child routinely does herself demonstrates the great value of pain to human and animal life. Although particular pains are certainly experienced as unquestioningly bad, our capacity to feel pain provides an enormous protection against injury. So achieving the utilitarian goal of minimizing or eliminating pain would actually be quite harmful to creatures. For Regan, the girl is still the subject of a life in myriad other ways. Yet the fact that she cannot feel pain does alter our moral obligations to her, even if she still has the exact same intrinsic worth as normal children. Her dentist, for example, need not have given her novocaine before pulling out all her teeth. So intrinsic worth cannot straightforwardly demonstrate the content of our moral obligations.

I’m not saying that the girl who can feel no pain is a counter-example to either Singer or Regan. Yet she raises questions about their account of the foundations of moral obligations and legal rights… questions which the advocate of rationality-based rights does not face.

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