Life Plan, Subject of a Life, or Sentience: Competing Criteria for Moral Consideration

by Michael Dorf

Last week, Sherry Colb and I were guests on the radio show Main Street Vegan, hosted by Victoria Moran. The episode is now available as a podcast. The interview covered various of the subjects we address in our book Beating Hearts: Abortion & Animal Rights. Here I want to focus on just one of those topics to expand upon a question that arose during the discussion.

Picking up on a topic addressed in chapter 4, at roughly the 46-minute mark of the show, Victoria asked us what we thought about the argument that death qua death--as opposed to suffering--does not harm those animals that lack "life plans." I began to answer that the argument is made by Peter Singer in his landmark 1975 book Animal Liberation and in other places and that a related argument is made by Tom Regan in his 1983 book The Case for Animal Rights. As I was just starting to say that Regan uses different terminology from Singer, Sherry jumped in to make clear to listeners that Regan does not adopt Singer's language--Regan talks about "subjects of a life", whereas Singer talks about "life plans"--nor does Regan make the argument that animals worthy of moral consideration are entitled only to be treated humanely. After the show was over, Sherry and I talked it over and realized that we weren't disagreeing, just making complementary points.

(1) In chapter 4, we offer a variety of reasons why life planning should not be the key to a right of sentient animals against being killed. Here are three of them:

(A) The enormous number of mammals, birds, and fishes used by humans for food are almost never treated humanely, so the argument that it is morally permissible to kill animals for food humanely is of theoretical but not practical importance.

(B) Most such animals are social, so even if they could be killed suddenly and painlessly, their fellow herd, flock, and school members would experience loss (as they do). Indeed, this phenomenon is routine even in the ostensibly vegetarian (but not vegan) animal industries, such as dairy, where calves are taken from their mothers almost immediately upon birth.

(C) It is by no means clear why having a life plan grounds an entitlement to continued life. Someone who has a life plan and is then killed suddenly and painlessly will not experience the frustration of her life plan, after all. She will be harmed by the same sort of deprivation as sentient animals who supposedly don't have life plans: she will not enjoy the portion of her life that was taken from her. Anyway, life planning as a criterion for a right not to be killed leads to monstrous results, such as the conclusion that it is morally permissible to painlessly kill a healthy human infant who has not yet developed the capacity to make a life plan. (If you're worried about the social impact, as per (B), imagine an orphan infant.)

(2) Singer and Regan are very different in important ways. For philosophers, the key difference is that Singer is a utilitarian, whereas Regan is a deontologist. We say in the Introduction to Beating Hearts that we don't adopt any comprehensive moral view, but it's also fair to say that our arguments tend more in the direction of deontology than utilitarianism. In any event, here I want to emphasize a different set of distinctions between Singer and Regan.

(A) Start with terminology. Regan's notion of "subject of a life" is broader than Singer's "life plan." Regan allows that sufficiently mature mammals, some birds, and maybe fishes are subjects of a life--i.e., they have lives that matter to them. With respect to fishes, I imagine that in light of recent findings, such as those detailed in Jonathan Balcombe's wonderful What a Fish Knows, Regan would put them more firmly on the subject-of-a-life side of the line.

(B) While Regan's terminology is more encompassing than Singer's, there is a downside. For Singer, an animal who can suffer is entitled not to be made to suffer (absent good reason), even if that animal, in virtue of lacking a life plan, is not entitled to avoid an unwanted but unexpected and painless death. What about Regan?  (At pp 100-102 of The Case for Animal Rights) Regan clearly and unequivocally rejects the idea that death is not harmful to animals for what strikes me as just the right reason: Because whether or not an animal suffers in death, the animal is harmed by virtue of the deprivation of the remainder of his life. But only if the animal is the subject of a life, because otherwise, by definition, there is no deprivation.

Moreover, for Regan, being the subject of a life is the key to moral consideration at all. Thus, animals who can experience pain but are not subjects of a life are not, under Regan's view, entitled to avoid unnecessary pain. Indeed, Regan says (at pp 95-96) that pain, by itself, is not suffering. To suffer requires an extension over time. Although Regan does not make the equation expressly at this particular point in The Case for Animal Rights, he appears to treat being the subject of a life as necessary for being capable of suffering.

(C) To be sure, Regan also says that being the subject of a life is a sufficient condition for moral consideration but not a necessary one. He makes that point (at pp 319-21) in talking about human infants and late-term fetuses, whom he treats (at least arguendo) as not subjects of a life. Not to worry though, Regan says, because we could have other reasons for treating human infants and late-term fetuses as entitled to moral respect. Discounting their "sentimental" value to parents and others, Regan says that we might think we are not entitled to do whatever we want to human infants and late-term fetuses because we want to foster a culture of respect for the rights of individuals. Treating infants or late-term fetuses as mere things would be inconsistent with such a culture.

(D) While I reach more or less the same bottom line as Regan, I find his path there quite troubling. It seems to me--and Sherry and I argue in Beating Hearts--that the reason for not treating infants and late-term fetuses as mere things is that they are not mere things. In virtue of their sentience, they are someones, not somethings. Put differently, we don't think that it's an open question whether human infants and late-term fetuses are entitled to moral consideration. We think it is clear that they are entitled to moral consideration because of their own interests in avoiding suffering and in continuing their lives.

(E) The Regan view has the further difficulty of muddling the moral argument concerning abortion. In (C) and (D), I have used the term "late-term fetuses" but Regan actually uses the term "soon-to-be-born human beings." How soon? For us, the answer is clear: As soon as they are sentient. But if the question is what fosters respect for individuals, it is easy to see how one could find in Regan's approach a "culture-of-life" argument for the proposition that all abortions are immoral.

(3) I want to conclude by acknowledging my debt to and admiration for the work of Singer and Regan. I disagree with each of them in some particulars, but their respective landmark books are of tremendous importance.