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Equal consideration of moral interests is a moral principle asserting that we should give equal consideration to the evaluation of the moral welfare of every individual.
In the context of animal-human relations, equal consideration of interests means giving equal deliberation to the relevant moral welfare of animals as well as humans. Equal consideration of interests is not a new idea, but Peter Singer gave it wide circulation in his 1975 book Animal Liberation
and defines it thus:
"Essentially this means that if an animal feels pain, the pain matters as much as it does when a human feels pain - if the pains hurt just as much. How bad pain and suffering are does not depend on the species of being that experiences it."
Singer-Posner debate. Slate Magazine. June 2001.
The strong version of equal consideration of interests says that animal and human interests are equally important and when there is moral conflict of interests you must consider animal and human interests equally. Humans should not take precedence over animals automatically and without thought.
Equal Consideration versus Animal Liberation
Many people often use the terms animal rights and animal liberation interchangeably. This might be all right sometimes, but in a strict sense animal liberation is made up of two different approaches to liberating animals: equal consideration of interests and animal rights.
Singer advances animal liberation through equal consideration of interests. Although he often talks about animal rights he does so only as shorthand, what he really means is liberating animals by giving them equal consideration.
Equal Consideration versus Animal Rights
Considering the moral interests of all animals equally is not the same as giving rights to animals. If you maintain that animals and humans have the same moral rights that forbid harm to them, then you cannot, say, experiment on them. However, if you maintain that animal and human interests are morally equal regarding experimentation, then you can experiment equally on humans as on animals. If you are not prepared to experiment on one then you cannot experiment on the other.
You must apply equal consideration to interests that are comparable. All animal species and humans share certain major interests in that they need nutrition, freedom of movement and social interaction with peers, for example. However, animals and humans do not share all interests. Animals do not need freedom of speech or freedom of religion. Freedoms of speech and religion are human interests that are not comparable interests with animals, so do not consider them. This may seem obvious, but some people like to confuse the issue by trying to compare irrelevant interests (‘we should not give rights to pigs because pigs do not need free speech’).
Some Advantages & Disadvantages
Three advantages of applying the principle of equal consideration when deciding animal-human moral conflicts are:
- Equal consideration counters the view that certain overriding attributes automatically decide in favour of humans, like possessing certain mental abilities, language, high intelligence, or membership of Homo sapiens.
- Equal consideration avoids giving moral equality to animals on all issues. You do not have to consider a claim by dogs for equal access to sports or by cats for equal opportunity in arts. Only comparable interests count. So you can limit your consideration to basic claims, such as to life, liberty and procreation.
- Equal consideration avoids giving equal moral status to all creatures. For example, we assume (perhaps wrongly) that insects experience pain in a lesser way than mammals, so that if you cause insects pain you might be harming them less than if you cause chimpanzees pain.
A couple of weaknesses applying equal consideration are:
- Equal consideration does not tell you what interests to consider. Basic interests like staying alive and avoiding pain are obvious, but you have to decide what other interests may be relevant. Children, adults, and mentally retarded adults do not always share the same interests. At least these people are the same species as us. The difficulty of knowing which interests to consider is compounded when we try to know what is right for other species.
- The principle of equal consideration does not tell you how to evaluate relative weights of interests. Not everyone might accept that humans and animals have morally equal weight on every comparable interest. Staying alive and avoiding pain would appear to be equally important for animals and humans, but for some reason you might decide to attach more weight to these interests to favour humans.
Certainly, the equal consideration of moral interests is a principle by which we can debate the moral standing of animals, along with equally key concepts, like sentience and speciesism.
|Should we give equal consideration to others?
This table points out some of the differences between equal consideration and animal rights.
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Table 1. Equal Consideration of Interests vs Animal Rights
||A moral principle stating that you should weigh the comparable moral interests of all creatures who will be affected by your actions.
||The bestowal of moral benefits (ie rights) on animals to protect them from human exploitation.
|What you should do
||Consider equally the comparable moral interests of all creatures influenced by your actions.
||Obey the rights that animals have (eg if animals have a right not to be abused by people, then you should not abuse them).
||Where comparable interests are involved, you can either exploit animals and humans equally or should not exploit either.
||You cannot exploit animals. You have a moral duty to support the rights of all animals.
||You must guess which interests are relevant and how to evaluate them.
||Not all animals need the same rights (eg monkey vs crab), which make for lots of different rights to remember.
|Can trace historical roots to
||Utilitarianism (see Chapter 2: Consequentialism).
||Deontology (see Chapter 2: Deontology).