(4b) “…because they are less intelligent…”

Objection (4b): Personhood and Intelligence

“Animals are morally less important than humans because they are less intelligent than humans, or put differently, because they are not persons: they lack reason, awareness of the self, awareness of time, moral agency, language and many other sophisticated cognitive capacities.”


(4b.1) Not All Humans Are Persons

It is true that most animals aren’t persons in the strict sense suggested here as they lack all or most of the above-mentioned capabilities that are usually associated with personhood. Nevertheless, this argument is faced with a serious drawback as it affects not only animals but some humans as well. This is the problem of the so-called marginal cases or human non-persons. Infants, the mentally disabled, people suffering from dementia or brain injuries etc. lack all or some of the above-mentioned characteristics and therefore fail to qualify as persons in the strict sense.

So if moral equality is made conditional on personhood (or higher intelligence), not only animals would be left out of the picture but some humans, too. This, however, would seem deeply troubling and counterintuitive. For, in general, infants, the senile etc. are not only considered to be our moral equals; instead, moral violations of these individuals are usually met with particular outrage and contempt. For these individuals are especially vulnerable owing to their defencelessness and dependence. And this goes to show that personhood or intelligence can hardly be the crucial criterion for moral relevance.

So it is impossible to establish a fundamental moral difference between all humans and all animals by referring to sophisticated cognitive capabilities or personhood. All that may be established is a difference between persons and non-persons.

If a less sophisticated capability – which is really shared by all humans, such as sentience – is chosen, then, however, the “problem” arises that this capability is also shared by animals. So, with regard to capabilities in general, it is impossible to establish a difference between humans and animals.

(4b.2) Personhood only Relevant in Certain Respects

Even if personhood defined a clear-cut line between humans and animals, this would not suffice to establish a fundamental moral difference between them. A lack of personhood doesn’t imply a lesser moral status in general; instead, all it implies is that certain moral norms and principles don’t apply to animals (or human non-persons, for that matter) but only to persons. For only persons, owing to their sophisticated capabilities, are vulnerable to certain violations – such as disrespect, contempt, degradation, or humiliation. Norms and principles prohibiting such violations don’t make sense with regard to animals (or other non-persons). So, for instance, you can’t harm animals by calling them names.

It is crucial to get this straight: just because said norms do not apply to animals, it does not follow that animals have a lesser moral status, i.e. are morally less important in general. Animals don’t need a right to school education or to be respected as persons – just like men don’t need a right to abortion – for the simple reason that they don’t have the corresponding needs interests and vulnerabilities.

It is in this sense that animals (and other non-persons) cannot have the same rights as persons: they cannot have identical rights. However, the rights they can have – such as a right to life or not to suffer – can nevertheless be as strong as the corresponding rights of persons: they can have equal rights. Having more or other rights does not imply that all rights one has are therefore weightier.

(4b.3) Personhood only Relevant in Certain Situations

Even if personhood bestowed a superior moral status on persons, nothing could be inferred from this fact for the treatment of animals in general. Instead, such a difference would only seem to be relevant in situations of real conflict or dilemmas (see 2.3). So, if you have to choose between saving, say, a person or a dog, the more sophisticated cognitive capacities of the person speak in favour of saving the person rather than the dog. But why should personhood entitle persons to inflict suffering on, and kill, animal non-persons – even outside of situations of real conflict? (And, of course, what we do to animals on a daily basis has nothing to do with such situations of conflict.)

Personhood might make sense as an additional criterion for an emergency principle to reach a non-arbitrary decision in situations of real conflict; but it’s certainly no carte blanche to instrumentalise others who fail to qualify as persons.