Author Archives: Jialin Yu

Strong Animal Position vs Weak Animal Position

Mary Anne Warren’s analysis of Tom Regan’s strong animal rights position revealed many inherent problems within the theory that proves to be obscure or unpersuasive. However, although I am in full consensus of the many unacceptable consequences that the strong animal rights position could lead to, the empirical notions central to the weak animal rights position seems to stand on precarious grounds as many of the tenets that Warren proposes appear to be also self conflicted.

Warren’s rejection of the validity of inherent value fundamentally exposes Regan’s arguments to skepticism. In his review, Regan tells us what inherent value isn’t, but never gave us an account of what it is exactly. Summarized by Warren, “inherent value appears as a mysterious non-natural property which we must take on faith”. We learn, from Regan’s theories, that the inherent value of a being is completely independent of the value oneself or others place on it. If this is the case, then we find that all sentient beings would have inherent value as they are all subjects-of-a-life that have existences which could go better or worse. The argument made by Warren that inherent value’s “subjecthood” should come in degrees also makes more logical sense than Regan’s which draws a sharp line to distinguish animals that are subjects-of-a-life from those that are not. As it is difficult to determine the extent of which animals feel pain, emotions, desires and memories, it is consequently difficult to determine the mental sophistication that would qualify them as subjects-of-a-life. Also, we may claim that certain creatures lack certain senses due to the absence of organs but in many cases, animals use different organs to perform the same task. The weak animal rights theory, in this case, differentiates the rights of animals with varying strengths in accordance to its mental sophistication which also relates to the strength of its moral rights. It certainly triumphs the benefit of the doubt principle which assumes animals, that may or may not be subject-of-a-life, as if they are.

There are indeed many more examples Warren gives that delineate the strength and credibility of the weak animal position theory, however, inconsistencies do exist. The one justification that Warren considers to have moral relevance in explaining the superiority of human rights over animal rights is that people are at least sometimes capable of being moved to action or inaction by the force of reasoned argument. She further explains that this capacity to “listen to reason” relies upon something like a human language. But how can we be so sure that animals don’t have a unique language? How do we know that animals are not using brain waves, or a higher and more intelligent method, to communicate? Dolphins communicate via high pitched clicking sounds and inform each other of their intentions. Chimpanzees use hand gestures much like humans’ sign language. Therefore, how do we know whether they are reasoning when we do not understand animal language in the first place? A mother whale could repeatedly breach and flap her fins to send signals of danger to a baby whale; the baby whale upon receiving these messages would react and possibly flee away from danger. Here we see an animal being moved to action by the force of a somewhat ‘reasoned argument’. Although the sophistication of animal communication cannot reach that of humans, it nevertheless demonstrates the fact that actions that could result from communication.

Warren’s theory also includes the concept that “no sentient being should be killed without good reason”. What qualifies as good reason? Dogs are now widely accepted as a home pet, or an animal that symbolizes loyalty. According to Warren’s principles, dogs would qualify as subject-of-a-life because they have memory, intentional action, a sense of the future and some degree of self-awareness. Thus, it is a sentient being that should not be killed without good reason. Yet, dog meat is very popular in many parts of the world with many people endorsing the killing of dogs for its meat. And so would human desire for good taste qualify as good reason? If so, then Warren’s theory would be self – conflicted.

Though problems exist in both theories, I am definitely a supporter of the weak animal rights position. In the contemporary society we live in, the weak animal position theory yields more flexible results with the existing set of beliefs and norms as opposed to the forceful set of guidelines that the strong animal position enforces.



Extreme vs Restricted Utilitarianism

Known for his contributions in Metaphysics, Ethics and the Philosophy of Mind, Smart presents very discerning and interesting arguments in the article distinguishing the “act” and “rule” of utilitarianism. Though there may be benefits in complying with either doctrines, the core tenets of both beliefs seem to be morally conflicted after we review Smart’s scenarios and examples.

He opens by stating that, to fundamentally separate extreme utilitarianism from restricted utilitarianism, is to differentiate our interpretation of the word “actions”. Let us first examine individual actions. According to extreme utilitarianism, rules are not rules; they are merely guidelines or in Smart’s words – “rules of thumb”. And so when we face a rule like keeping promises, an extreme utilitarianism could render it obsolete if the goodness of the consequences of breaking the promise exceeds that of keeping it. Here, we come across the first flaw of extreme utilitarianism; in abiding to its doctrines, a society of mistrust would be inevitably created. In this case, would the consequences of breaking promises benefit society as a whole? The single action of breaking a promise may prove beneficial because of its “good” consequences but collectively, it shakes our individual moral guidelines and puts our moral integrity in a precarious position.

Smart went on to give an example of how a class of actions could be justified on the grounds of extreme utilitarianism. He supposed that a man was drowning in a river near Berchtesgaden in 1938 and he had a high resemblance of the villainous dictator Adolf Hitler, the rescuer, with no time to spare, trusted his instincts and saved him. An extreme utilitarian who knew that the drowning man was Adolf Hitler would nevertheless praise the rescuer because the man showed courage, strength and benevolence, all of which are dispositions of “great positive utility”. Yet ultimately, the extreme utilitarian praised an action that he knew was wrong. Suppose we all adopted the same beliefs, we would then be constantly wearing a facade and living in a society of deception as our words contradict our self-acknowledged truths. Thus, another flaw of extreme utilitarianism surfaces. To be a believer, we not only have to abandon our integrity but also forego our honesty. Perhaps the more rational method would be to praise the rescuer for the act but reprimand him for rescuing Adolf Hitler. But then another question would follow; how can we justify this punishment for the dictator? One of the key principles of utilitarianism is equality. If every individual is to be treated without prejudice, then shouldn’t Hitler also face the Justice system instead of dying without a trial? As we see, many moral dilemmas appear if we try to reason scenarios like this with extreme utilitarianism principles.

For restricted utilitarianism, we need only look at the “defense” that Smart made at the end; what if one of the rules is “act optimifically”? According to Stephen Toulmin, if “keep promises” conflicts with another rule, we are allowed to argue the case based on its merits but if “act optimifically” is itself a rule then there will always be a conflict of rules. Therefore, restricted utilitarianism, in theory, cannot substantiate its tenets with enough credibility and logic that it ultimately “collapses” into extreme utilitarianism. And so it follows that both doctrines are morally conflicted.

According to Professor Millson, a good normative ethical theory is one that “preserves core tenets and as many intuitions without changing the other”. After reading Smart’s article, we see frequent infringements between tenet and intuition and so it makes us question whether extreme and restricted utilitarianism should be appellated as good theories. Indeed, they offer scientific explanations of how things are but they don’t provide moral guidelines of which we can abide to in every scenario.


The Place of reason in Ethics Pg 146-8