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A Theory of Ethics

Most people believe that adult humans are moral beings, capable of acting not from instinct but rather from a reasoned set of rules. These rules are defined as “ethics.” For most of history, the discussion of ethics was dominated first by superstition and later by religious doctrine, and thus largely resistant to reasoned examination. It is only in the last few centuries have ethics been rigorously pursued outside of religious doctrine. Currently, even those who hold strong religious convictions are now dependent upon arguments from secular ethics to resolve disagreements with people of different religious beliefs and cultures. Likewise, most religious doctrines now accept that their texts should be viewed critically as products, at least in part, of human cultures. For example, from the Bible and Torah:

When your brother is reduced to poverty and sells himself to you, you shall not use him to work for you as a slave.… Such slaves as you have, male or female, shall come from the nations round about you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy the children of those who have settled and lodge with you and such of their family as are born in the land. These may become your property, and you may leave them to your sons after you; you may use them as slaves permanently.

Leviticus 25: 39–46

If a member of a Judeo-Christian religion claims that their religious texts are an infallible guide to morality, they would have to say that slavery is ethically acceptable. Alternatively, if one does not consider a religious text as the first, last, and only word on ethics, then one is left to find another basis for ethics. To reduce the problem of interpretation and the prevalence of inherent prejudices, one needs to seek a universal basis that can transcend the boundaries of faith and culture. Seeking such a universal basis is not necessarily at odds with religious belief; presumably, any Creator who has given humans the ability for rational thought and logical analysis would want us to use this ability.

Despite the capacity for rationality, human beings have several significant obstacles to overcome when discussing ethics. Foremost, we have significant evolutionary baggage which leads us to value ourselves and family first, our tribe second, and strangers third, if we value them at all.1 Some people call this hierarchical value system our “moral intuition,” or our “moral instinct” – what “feels right” is right (or ethical). Some philosophers derive ethics from this instinct – intuitionism. Intuitionists may judge ethical arguments against our intuitions and modify these arguments so as to fit better with our intuitions. Still other philosophers start with their intuitions and work backwards to create some seemingly rational basis to justify their desired conclusions.

Not everyone has the same instincts about ethics, however, and not all instincts appear to be equally valid. Indeed, we now widely condemn as unethical the instincts of ordinary Americans who enslaved blacks. And for all we know, a century from now people will condemn our generation for instincts we may now be uncritically harboring. As Peter Singer wrote in Practical Ethics, “It is easy for us to criticize the prejudices of our grandfathers, from which our fathers freed themselves. It is more difficult to distance ourselves from our own views, so that we can dispassionately search for prejudices among the beliefs and values we hold.” Likewise, it’s important that ethics, whenever possible, avoid deferring to potentially prejudiced instincts. As rational beings, we are not required to be slaves to these instincts.


Universal Ethics

The easiest means by which to avoid our instinctive prejudices is to take an objective, disinterested point of view when discussing ethics. Such a point of view is sometimes called “the point of view of the universe” – a view in which we empathize with all those beings affected by our decisions. There are many approaches one can take to simulate such a universal viewpoint. One of the more common approaches is called “The Original Position.” Imagine yourself as a purely rational, disembodied entity, existing before the world comes to be. At some unknown point in the future, you will be “incarnated” on Earth, at which point you will take on the intellectual and emotional characteristics of your new body. In addition, you do not know your future IQ, your race, your nationality, your gender, or even your species.

Behind this “veil of ignorance,” you must choose what is to be held good and bad in the world in which you will be incarnated. Because you are self-interested, you want to protect whatever interests you may have in your various possible incarnations. Put another way, a universal view like that of the Original Position involves an “equal consideration of interests” of all those beings one could become.

How can one think about a situation like this? What can be said about the various beings whose lives we could possibly lead? How can we compare their diverse interests? One universal aspect is that every being said to possess “interests” seems to pursue experiences that they find desirable (pleasure) while avoiding those that are undesirable (pain). In short, maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain are interests held by each individual that has the biological capacity for having interests. Such interests appear to be fundamental to all conscious creatures, likely the result of evolutionary processes that used pleasure and pain as inducements to guide behavior and learning.2 If organisms (such as bacteria, plants, and perhaps some simpler animals like clams and some other invertebrates) are incapable of the subjective experience of pleasure or pain, then the rules by which one interacts with them are irrelevant to them. You could be incarnated as an oak tree, but the universal system of ethics set forth would be inconsequential to you. For sentient beings, these interests vary as widely as the organisms do, from basic avoidance of nerve tissue damage, to the conscious, intellectual desire for “justice.” What appears to be universal and irreducible, however, is that many (if not all) vertebrate animals are aware of pain and pleasure.3

Pleasure and pain thus provide a universal basis for ethics in which the interests of diverse beings can be compared. Knowing nothing more than this, one can set forth a basic ethical rule for the world into which they will be incarnated: that a conscious being’s interests in a pleasurable, painless life will be respected as much as the comparable interests of other beings. In short: equal consideration of interests.


Differences of Interests

It is important here to make a few notes about interests. Equal consideration of interests does not imply equality of treatment. Individuals have different interests and thus require different treatment to protect these interests. As Richard Ryder points out (using the language of rights), “humans suffer if denied the right to vote, so this is important for humans but it is not so for other species. Access to eucalyptus leaves is, however, very important for koalas, and so the right of access to eucalyptus leaves is an important right for them.”

Not all interests are of the same intensity. As Bernard Rollin writes: “I would not adopt as a universal principle always favoring the ‘higher’ animals – for example, if the choice came down to a quick death for the higher animal versus a slow, lingering death for a lower animal, one should presumably choose the death of the higher animal. This makes us realize that we need to consider not only number of interests, but also quality and intensity of their satisfaction and frustration.”

Similarly, our interest in finding pleasure and avoiding pain may not be equal. It is possible for an individual to have a variety of pleasurable experiences, but the range of pleasures in life does not seem to match the range of pains. What pleasures would be equivalent to the suffering associated with paralysis, the loss of one's sight, or the loss of one's limb? As Ryder writes, “At its extreme, pain is more powerful than pleasure can ever be. Pain overrules pleasure within the individual far more effectively than pleasure can dominate pain.” This is not to say that pleasure does not count at all, but that in general, equal consideration of interests focuses on pain reduction. As Singer comments in Writings on an Ethical Life:

The perspective on ourselves that we get when we take the point of view of the universe yields as much objectivity as we need if we are to find a cause that is worthwhile in a way that is independent of our own desires. The most obvious such cause is the reduction of pain and suffering, wherever it is to be found. This may not be the only rationally grounded value, but it is the most immediate, pressing, and universally agreed upon one. We know from our experience that when pain and suffering are acute, all other values recede into the background. If we take the point of view of the universe, we can recognize the urgency of doing something about the pain and suffering of others, before we even consider promoting (for their own sake rather than as a means to reducing pain and suffering) other possible values like beauty, knowledge, autonomy, or happiness.



Once we have arrived at the view of equal consideration of interests and see that pleasure and pain form a common currency with which to compare these interests, we must ask what this means for our ethics. First, it will take us to many of the conventional ethical positions that most of us already accept – suffering is bad; hunger and disease should be alleviated; people should be given personal freedoms with which to prosper; people should not be discriminated against on the basis of their race, gender, nationality, or other group membership; laws should protect the interests of the weaker against the stronger. However, our view of equal consideration also leads us to some conclusions that counter current conventional ethics, particularly with regard to animals. If suffering matters, regardless of who is suffering, then much of our current treatment of animals is unjustifiable. For instance, we may gain some pleasure from eating a hamburger. However, equal consideration of interests makes us put ourselves in the place of a cow as well as in the place of the hamburger-eater. Does the pleasure of eating a hamburger outweigh the pain we would endure to be killed for that hamburger? We would probably conclude that the interest in not being slaughtered is stronger than the pleasure gained by eating a hamburger.



The universality of this “equal consideration of interests” theory of ethics is straightforward. What is important is determined only by the nature of those affected by decisions. The sole logical, rational, and reasonable manner for building a truly universal ethic is by including everything.

Yet instincts and prejudices are older than formalized ethics, and run as deep as our evolution. Thus, it may be worthwhile to examine some of the objections against universalized ethics.


Moral Patients

One objection is that the pool of possible incarnates includes moral patients (those unable to act from the chosen code of ethics, such as children, the mentally handicapped, and most nonhuman animals) as well as moral agents (normal adult humans). Some philosophers (generally contractualists) argue that moral patients do not deserve direct moral consideration. Is this reasonable?

Given that all moral agents begin life as moral patients (infants and children) and can become moral patients (after a stroke or senility), it would be in the interests of those in the original position to include moral patients within their code of ethics. Given that moral patients can be affected by the decisions of moral agents, there is no consistent reason for excluding them from the pool of possible incarnates, and thus from consideration of their interests. As Rollin concludes, “In a nutshell, there is no argument showing that only moral agents can be moral recipients. On the contractualist view, it is also hard to see why animals differ in a morally relevant way from all sorts of humans who can"t rationally enter into contracts – future generations of humans, infants, children (especially terminally ill children, who will not live long enough to actualize rationality), the retarded, the comatose, the senescent, the brain-damaged, the addicted, the compulsive, the sociopath, all of whom are also incapable of entering into or respecting contracts.”

Moreover, it is not even clear that the distinction between moral agents and patients would exclude all nonhuman animals. While some adult humans may have a monopoly on ethical theory (in addition to a corner on the market for atrocities), humans do not have a monopoly on ethical practices. As Drs. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan relate in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors:

In the annals of primate ethics, there are some accounts that have the ring of parable. In a laboratory setting, macaques were fed if they were willing to pull a chain and electrically shock an unrelated macaque whose agony was in plain view through a one-way mirror. Otherwise, they starved. After learning the ropes, the monkeys frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment only 13% would do so – 87% preferred to go hungry. One macaque went without food for nearly two weeks rather than hurt its fellow. Macaques who had themselves been shocked in previous experiments were even less willing to pull the chain. The relative social status or gender of the macaques had little bearing on their reluctance to hurt others.

If asked to choose between the human experimenters offering the macaques this Faustian bargain and the macaques themselves – suffering from real hunger rather than causing pain to others – our own moral sympathies do not lie with the scientists. But their experiments permit us to glimpse in nonhumans a saintly willingness to make sacrifices in order to save others – even those who are not close kin. By conventional human standards, these macaques – who have never gone to Sunday school, never heard of the Ten Commandments, never squirmed through a single junior high school civics lesson – seem exemplary in their moral grounding and their courageous resistance to evil. Among these macaques, at least in this case, heroism is the norm. If the circumstances were reversed, and captive humans were offered the same deal by macaque scientists, would we do as well? (Especially when there is an authority figure urging us to administer the electric shocks, we humans are disturbingly willing to cause pain – and for a reward much more paltry than food is for a starving macaque [cf. Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental Overview].) In human history there are a precious few whose memory we revere because they knowingly sacrificed themselves for others. For each of them, there are multitudes who did nothing.

Discussing the macaque monkeys who chose to starve rather than inflict pain on another, Drs. Sagan and Druyan conclude, “Might we have a more optimistic view of the human future if we were sure our ethics were up to their standards?”


Excluding Animals – Rationality

People are generally willing to include human moral patients in the circle of ethics, but a truly universal ethic (i.e., the inclusion of nonhuman animals in the pool of possible incarnates) has obvious and difficult implications – notably, that one should not eat or generally cause animals to suffer. Many find the consequences of this inclusion unacceptable, and it is to avoid these consequences that nearly all philosophers and ethicists have either simply ignored animals, or built arguments trying to show that only humans are worthy of ethical consideration.

Is it possible to build a rational and morally-relevant argument for exclusion of animals instead of simply including everything in the Original Position? Despite the efforts of many, it is unclear how one might do this. For instance, John Rawls argues that only moral agents are to be included in his Theory of Justice. Rawls attempts to count children among moral agents because they are potential moral agents. However, as Singer writes, this is “an ad hoc device confessedly designed to square his theory with our ordinary moral intuitions, rather than something for which independent arguments can be produced. Moreover, although Rawls admits that those with irreparable mental defects ‘may present a difficulty,’ he offers no suggestions towards the solution of this difficulty.” (Singer, Practical Ethics)

What is it about being rational, with one’s own ends and a sense of justice, that is ethically relevant to inclusion in the set of potential incarnates? Of course, rationality is an assumption of those in the original position, for there would be no discussion otherwise (if irrational decisions were allowed, anything would be fair game, and there would be no basis for a set of rules governing interactions). Yet making rationality a requirement for being a potential incarnate has no basis. If rationality were a prerequisite, many “marginal” human beings (such as the brain-damaged and senile) would be excluded from moral consideration.5


Excluding Animals – Intelligence

Often, intelligence is offered as what sets humans apart from other animals. Rollin counters this common contention:

But why does intelligence score highest? Ultimately, perhaps, because intelligence allows us to control, vanquish, dominate, and destroy all other creatures. If this is the case, it is power that puts us on top of the pyramid. But if power provides grounds for including or excluding creatures from the scope of moral concern, we have essentially accepted the legitimacy of the thesis that “might makes right” and have, in a real sense, done away with all morality altogether. If we do accept this thesis, we cannot avoid extending it to people as well, and it thus becomes perfectly moral for Nazis to exterminate the Jews, muggers to prey on old people, the majority to oppress the minority, and the government to do as it sees fit to any of us. Furthermore, as has often been pointed out, it follows from this claim that if an extraterrestrial alien civilization were intellectually, technologically, and militarily superior to us, it would be perfectly justified in enslaving or eating or exterminating human beings.


Excluding Animals – Language

R. G. Frey (Interests and Rights: The Case Against Animals) argues that only with language can a creature have interests: “If what is believed is that a certain declarative sentence is true, then no creature which lacks language can have beliefs; and without beliefs, a creature cannot have desires. And this is the case with animals, or so I suggest; and if I am right, not even in the sense, then, of wants or desires do animals have interests.”

While quick to use this rationalization against animals, Frey ignores the implication for infants6 and for brain damaged humans. (Still others, such as Michael Leahy, will allow for the exclusion of “marginal humans” so as to be able to reject consideration for other animals.) Indeed, given that fully matured Broca and Wernke areas are required for language, if Frey were to have a minor stroke in one of these areas, he would no longer be subject to ethical consideration, and could be subsequently eaten or used for experiments, regardless of the suffering he experienced.

(This is not to imply that the brain is not required to have interests. Damage to the brain can lead to the loss of interests – thus the term “brain dead.” Even relatively small damage, such as the destruction of the hypothalamus in the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, can end one’s interests.)

What does speaking represent? Does language create an entirely new (inner) world – one alien to and entirely different from those without language (infants, animals)? Did Koko, the ape who learned sign language, become a whole new creature? At what point in learning a language does an infant have an interest in not being tortured?7


More Important

One might allow that many nonhuman animals have interests, but find no inherent implications from this admission. Indeed, few call for outright and total dismissal of animals’ concerns (e.g., the repeal of current welfare and anti-cruelty laws). Rather, the current Western consensus is that humans’ interests are simply more important. But to whom are humans’ interests more important? To humans. But do we really contend that the interest in a Big Mac is greater than the cow's desire not to be slaughtered?

Defenders of animal experimentation often use emotional hypothetical choices of “more important” to defend animal exploitation. For example, concerning her daughter Claire, who has cystic fibrosis, Jane McCabe wrote in Newsweek (Dec. 26, 1988): “If you had to choose between saving a very cute dog or my equally cute, blond, brown-eyed daughter, whose life would you choose?… It’s not that I don’t love animals, it’s that I love Claire more.”

Ignoring that a single dog experiment could never cure her child’s disease, the moral question is whether personal attachment justifies harming others. Since McCabe probably loves her daughter more than other children, would she endorse experimenting on other children to save her child? This, after all, would be a scientifically more productive research strategy than experimenting on nonhuman animals.


Prejudice is Prejudice

Throughout history, people have set forth systems of rules and laws which excluded others – other clans, other races, other sexes, other religions, etc. To modern Western observers, (some of) these prejudices seem as self-evidently “wrong” as the current exclusion of other species seems obviously “right.” As pointed out in The Economist: “Historically, man has expanded the reach of his ethical calculations, as ignorance and want have receded, first beyond family and tribe, later beyond religion, race, and nation. To bring other species more fully into the range of these decisions may seem unthinkable to moderate opinion now. One day, decades or centuries hence, it may seem no more than ‘civilized’ behavior requires.” (8/19/95)

Even if we insist of rejecting the universal requirement of ethics, given our propensity for prejudice, we should be skeptical of any distinction based on membership to a group. The only clear distinction of membership in the human species is that, with gender, race, and nationality no longer being fashionable prejudices, “human” is the most exclusive group to which most philosophers now pledge allegiance.


Why Act Morally?8

Some may well contend that they are rational (or even ethical) and offer no means to dismiss any of the above arguments, yet still find themselves unconvinced that the implications of equal consideration of interests have any influence on their lives. Being relatively prosperous and already protected by the laws of a Western democracy, they may believe that they have little to gain from a change in the status quo; they may even feel that, if required to act upon something other than pure self-interest and self-advancement, they would have much to lose.

To a large extent, they would be correct in this analysis. Although it is true that, if one believes it unnecessary to live ethically, they have no reason to expect others to act ethically as well (in which case everyone but the most powerful would suffer), society already has enforceable rules in place to protect them from being exploited. Thus, for all practical purposes, acting from ethics appears to have nothing to offer.

So why worry? Why not pursue one’s ends with any and all means available?


Pursuing What Ends?

Before addressing this question, a more fundamental question arises – what are our “ends”? Put a slightly different way, what is the meaning of our lives? Religion used to provide this answer, mostly in pre-capitalistic societies. Although many people still claim membership in some religion, in modern Western societies, service to “God” is rarely offered as the guiding force for people’s view of life and decisions.

Singer points out that the collapse of these traditions have removed people's basis for meaning in life / basis for how to live: “When Sartre realized that life has no meaning, it was a shocking contention. Now, it is simply the normal understanding.”

It seems that, at least from appearances, “getting ahead” – the accumulation of more material wealth and possessions – is most people’s de facto meaning of life . The question then becomes: Is this the only (or best) purpose we can pursue?

Given that many people have found meaning in other pursuits, material advancement is not the sole purposeful course. The other question – is it the best purpose – is rather more difficult, even in knowing how to rate the different options.

Without abdicating to a certain religious (or even philosophical) tradition, there may appear to be no basis by which to judge ways of living. Materialism is often thought of as the external embodiment of the pursuit of pleasure, and pleasure is thus the ultimate “meaning” that life can have. With this in mind and a general understanding of our evolutionary heritage, one can understand better the reasons why humans often derive their life’s meaning from the pursuit of material goods, and ultimately, why this pursuit may well be judged not to be optimal.


Evolution and Insatiability

Throughout the vast majority of evolution, those individuals who pursued and obtained the most (e.g., food and other signs of “wealth”) survived and reproduced the most. This connection between having and the continuation of one's genes was not conscious, but rather was manifested in the individual's drives and desires for things, a discontent with the status quo, and an envy of those with more.

These innate desires do not disappear once one has “enough” (when an individual is no longer in competition with others for limited resources or breeding rights). In fact, it would appear that in many, if not all cases, nothing satiates the drive for accumulating more – there is always more to have, and always those who are better off. In other words, materialism is the embodiment of the pursuit of happiness, but incapable of arriving at happiness. More accurately, materialism is flight from the discontent of our insatiable unconscious desires.

At some level, we are aware of this. Consider what our position would be if we were raising a child, and had only the child’s interests at heart. It would be her preference-satisfactions alone, over her life as a whole, that we were seeking to maximize. Would we teach that child to pursue hedonistic materialism? Would we want her to look only for the short-term benefit (e.g., nearly always put off going to the dentist)?



What might provide a viable option to this endless battle with discontent? As Kant said, we can be at our most free when we are at our most rational. Rational analysis reveals the pitfalls of our evolutionary heritage. This is not to advocate a Vulcan stoicism, a suppression of emotions. Rather, following a rational outlook can free an individual from unfulfillable drives and desires that prevent us from achieving sustainable peace and happiness. One can still experience emotions -- the love for another person, the appreciation of a sunset, etc. -- for what they are, not for what they fulfill at the moment, soon to be taken for granted.

However, logic alone does not provide meaning, but is, rather, a first step. “An unexamined life is not worth living,” said Thoreau, but he didn’t say that an examined life is worth living. Rationalism may free us from some of our evolutionary baggage, but free us to do what?

At this point, we can only speculate. Once we recognize our ancient drives, we can more clearly pursue what it can mean to be human. As rational beings, we can make decisions about how to live our lives based on logical and consistent derivations from first principles. As social beings, we are not in a “zero-sum” game, where for one person to win, another has to lose.9 Rather, cooperation can lead to advancement for all. Thus, we find that it is possible to create a situation where we can live consistently ethically and still come out ahead.

In the example above, Peter Singer contends that, to maximize the child’s happiness, we would teach her ethics of character and respect: “the dispositions which make possible mutual cooperation and affection, without which all our endeavors would miscarry, and all the joy and warmth in life would disappear. Those who do not love their fellow men are less successful in living happily among them.” (How are We to Live?)

Working together, working for something lasting, bigger than one’s self, can make life meaningful. Revisiting the myth of Sisyphus, condemned to roll a rock up a hill for eternity, Singer argues that this ultimate torture can be made meaningful if Sisyphus is allowed to push different rocks up the hill, and use them to construct a building or monument.

We can each make our life a monument, building a better world.



  1. See, for example, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, and The Moral Animal by Robert Wright.
  2. For a further discussion of consciousness, see Decartes’ Error and The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio. Excerpts from the latter at
  3. For one example of an exploration, see Do Animals Feel Pain? (registration required) New Scientist 25 April 1992.
  4. For a discussion of more objections, see “Beyond Might Makes Right.”
  5. Although there is nothing to indicate that, as biological beings, rationality is inherent even in theory.
  6. Without beliefs and interests, why and how would infants acquire language?
  7. It seems safe to say that Frey has never experienced severe pain, else he would know that language is not required to have interests, as the deepest sufferings often overwhelm the ability to think in language.

    J. Dupre: “the suggestion that no nonhuman animal is conscious, sensate, moderately intelligent or in possession of even the simplest of beliefs can…be founded only on serious misunderstandings of what is involved in the application of mental descriptions. thus, I want to conclude that there should be no difficulty in deciding that many other kinds of animals have minds.”

    M. Fox, DVM: “There is sufficient documented evidence from stress research, animal psychology, and neurophysiology to support the probability that the subjective emotional world of animals is more similar to the various subjective states of human consciousness than it is different.… we extrapolate biochemical, physiological, nutritional, and even some behavioral responses in animals to humans all the time in biomedical research. Is it not, therefore, possible to extrapolate the other way?”

    Both quoted in “Animal Minds and Intelligence,” J Anim. Sci., 76:2072–2079
  8. See Non-Zero, by Robert Wright.
  9. See Excerpts from How Are We To Live? by Peter Singer.