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Posted by on Nov 17, 2007 in Peter Singer, scruton | 7 comments

Scruton and other species

Scruton’s justification for discrimination against other species

Roger Scruton attempts to justify our discriminating between pigs etc. and similarly dim humans by appealing to both potential and normality:

It is in the nature of human beings that, in normal conditions, they become members of a moral community, governed by duty and protected by rights. Abnormality in this respect does not cancel membership. It merely compels us to adjust our response… It is not just that dogs and bears do not belong to the moral community. They have no potential for membership. They are not the kind of thing that can settle disputes, that can exert sovereignty over its life, that can respond to the call of duty or take responsibility on a matter of trust.
Scruton, Roger (2000) Animal Rights and Wrongs, third edition (London, Metro), pp. 54-55.

Scruton concludes that, because of these differences between pigs, etc. and similarly dim humans, we are morally justified in discriminating as we do (killing and eating former; caring for the latter, etc.).

There is, I think, something intuitively deeply implausible about Scruton’s attempt to justify our current discriminatory practices. Consider the following thought experiment.

Thought experiment: a dim parallel species

Suppose that on a planet many light years from the Earth there has evolved a species that bears an uncanny resemblance to we humans. They look much like us, and indeed are physiologically and genetically very much like us. However, they are dim. They have no moral or aesthetic sense. In fact, they are no more mentally sophisticated than is the average pig. As a species, they are not, to borrow Scruton’s phrase ‘the kind of thing that can settle disputes, that can exert sovereignty over its life, that can respond to the call of duty or take responsibility on a matter of trust’.

Now imagine we are presented with two groups of individuals. The first group are orphan offspring from this other planet. They are dim because individuals belonging to that species are normally, naturally dim. The second group are terrestrial human beings: the orphan children of men and women like ourselves. But they too are dim, as dim as the extraterrestrial group, in fact. The second group’s mental impairment is due to a nuclear mishap. Their fathers were accidentally irradiated, resulting in damage to the genetic code handed down to them.

Let’s suppose these two groups are otherwise identical. Indeed, they are molecule-for-molecule duplicates of each other. The immediate cause of their dimness is in each case the same: their genetic code. However, while the two groups share the same code, they possess it for different reasons. The terrestrials possess it because they are the unfortunate victims of a recent nuclear accident. The extra-terrestrial group possesses it because of their evolutionary ancestry.

Note that while the members of the extra-terrestrial are ‘normal’ for their kind, the terrestrials are not. Human beings, under normal conditions, develop into smart, sophisticated creatures like ourselves. They are that kind of thing.

Also notice that, unlike the extraterrestrials, the terrestrials once had the potential to be smart. Had their fathers not been involved in that nuclear accident, they would have been as mentally sophisticated as ourselves. The extra-terrestrials, on the other hand, were always going to be dim. That is their nature.

Let’s now test our moral intuitions with the following question: Are we morally permitted to discriminate between these two groups? In particular, would it be wrong to kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. the second group but not the first?

If we are permitted to kill and eat, experiment upon etc. those who belong to species the normal members of which are dim, but not those who, while dim, are members of a species that, as a kind, is morally and intellectually sophisticated, then we may kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. the dim extraterrestrials, but not the dim terrestrials. If what matters, morally speaking, is what under normal conditions the members of a certain kind will become, then while we are morally obliged to extend to the dim terrestrials special treatment, we can kill and eat, experiment upon, etc. their molecularly-indistinguishable doppelgangers with impunity.

Similarly, if it is potential that counts, then while we have a special duty of care towards the terrestrials, their extra-terrestrial doppelgangers can in good conscience be put on the truck to the abattoir.

But of course this verdict is profoundly counterintuitive. How can we be justified in treating these molecule-for-molecule duplicates so very differently, simply because they differ in terms of potential and what is “normal” for their kind?

Suppose a mistake is discovered: a couple marked out for the special care centre we have designed to look after the dim humans are suddenly discovered to be of extraterrestrial origin. Would we be justified in diverting these two to the abattoir instead? Surely not.

What this thought experiment elicits (in me, at least) is the very strong intuition that the difference between the two groups in terms of both normality and potential does not justify this difference in treatment.

Indeed, what the thought experiment brings out, in me at least, is the intuition that the difference in normality and potential is simply not morally relevant.


  1. Does discrimination in general need to be justified? Or does equality need to be justified? I believe in equal rights for humans and greater rights for humans than for other animal species. I will deal with the dim ET when I meet it. More likely we will have genetically engineered semi-humans sometime soon, and they will pose a similar ethical challenge.A right of equality, of non-discrimination is a duty upon others not to discriminate. It is not a default position, but, as a restriction on behaviour, it has to be justified. The converse would have us struggling to justify treating rabbits different to bananas and bananas different to rocks.So, if instead of the question, why is it OK to discriminate between people and other animals, if we were to answer the question why should all humans have equal rights, won’t the reasons we give apply, only sometimes and in some part, to animals, GM semi-humans and ETs and thereby start to answer the discrimination question.

  2. The tiny problem with this thought experiment is that if the aliens are molecule-for-molecule duplicates possessing the same genetic code, they are not aliens, they are members of our species. I think you’re also misunderstanding what Scruton means by “potential” – he means animals cannot possibly be members of the moral community (i.e. they lack the capability – no dog could ever have the ability to act morally because it cannot reason about duties and obligations to others). Scruton would probably also argue that severely disabled humans lack this potential (my copy of his book is elsewhere so I can’t check) – but the point of his argument here is that you shouldn’t consider extreme individual cases, you have to consider the general qualities of species. It’s an archaic use of the word “potential” to mean “potency”, but Scruton’s an archaic kinda guy (the root of the word is the Latin for “power”, though it’s usually used these days to imply a latent or undeveloped quality).I’d be interested to know what you think the legitimate reasons are for discrimination (since you presumably do discriminate between Cornishmen, cows and carrots when it comes to food sources or experimental subjects). Where and how do you draw the line?

  3. I think Scruton needs to do a great deal more, and more sceintifically-informed, work than I suspect he has to support his claim that no other species is the sort of thing that can be moral. I suspect that he would find the task of accurately defining out wolves, say, much more difficult than it might appear, without making unsupported asseverations about thier mental processes.Even were one to accept his proposition about potential, the actual facts are not as yet sufficiently clear.

  4. I’ve not read Scruton, so I must base my assessment only on his quote in the post, but he seems to be making a very silly argument. (At least, that’s how it appears to me.)If I read him right, Scruton seems to be saying that since it is natural for the human species to self-organise into a moral community, this grants a special status to ALL members of the species. He says “abnormality in this respect does not cancel membership”, but he never goes on to justify this. To me, the average characteristics of the species as a whole should not bias me in any direction when I’m judging an individual. (Consider: as a species, humans look after their children. Therefore, individuals can’t be treated as suspects if their children die under mysterious circumstances.)Scuton’s argument is superficially plausible, since it does offer a delineation between our species and other species (but only potentially: see Potentilla’s point). But he doesn’t (for me at least) offer any justification for not treating individual cases as individual cases.

  5. Joe – see my latest post on Singer for some explanation.Andrew – ah, yes, I had not explained sufficiently. Many philosophers would count these two kinds of beings as different species, because they hold that evolutionary origin is a necessary condition of species membership. So atom-for-atom duplicates need not belong to the same species, if the have very different evolutionary histories.Probably I should explain this a bit more at some point….

  6. Well, the limits of Scruton’s approach aside, I think your hypothetical example does much to show the limits of at least two other ideas.(1) I think it illustrates the limits of science fictional hypothetical arguments. Does this example illustrate some truth of normative ethics, or something about our intuitions which does not necessarily align with any real ethical concern? Not only does nothing within your chosen hypothetical case resolve that question, it seems specifically design to appeal to intuitions (our instinctual, evolved sense of empath/identity with creatures that look like us) in a way that obscures the distinction.(2) I also thing this general area of questions about the moral status of other animals – and hypothetical case-driven attempts to answer those questions – illustrates the limitations of a fundamentally legislative approach to ethical theory. From a virtue theory perspective, the question of how we would treat [animals of a given sort/ human-like dim aliens/ whatever] would seem to center more on what our treatment of such creatures reveals of our own character – and for that matter, what kind of character our actions create. It seems very plausible to say that exercising cruelty towards an animal both illustrates and contributes to flaws in a person’s character (cruelty, lack of empathy) quite without regard to the moral status of the animal. Think about what is really indicated, morally speaking, by saying that a person is the type who “pulls the wings off flies”…

  7. Hi G FelisVery interesting comment. But I am not sure the virtue ethicist really avoids the challenge. It just crops up in a different guise. If sexists and racists are guilty of bad character and worthy of moral condemnation, why aren’t “speciesists”?If virtue ethics cannot anwer this question, so much the worse for virtue ethics.

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