This paper defends my utilitarian perspective of moral standing and moral duties. I argue that the ultimate criterion for moral standing is the ability to experience pain since it is the only element that is intrinsically bad. Moral agents have a responsibility to minimize the average amount of pain experienced by all sentient beings.
From the case studies reviewed this semester, I believe that I hold a utilitarian ethical position based on sentience. The ultimate criterion for moral standing is the ability to experience pain, as it is the only element that is intrinsically bad. The entire nonliving natural world possesses instrumental value because of its relationship with all living things. Moral agents have a responsibility to minimize the total amount of pain experienced by all sentient beings. Since the nonliving natural world is vital to the well-being of sentient creatures, moral agents also have a responsibility to preserve the natural environment. Humans have exceptional duties due to their unparalleled intelligence and capability. This intelligence does not grant humans moral superiority, but rather a greater moral responsibility to protect the welfare of non-human life.
Without sentient life, there is no morality – only natural processes that are ethically neutral. The concepts of good and evil cannot exist without creatures capable of making decisions and experiencing others’ choices. Furthermore, good and evil cannot exist without the experiences of pleasure and pain. How could one determine which natural processes are good and evil if they result in neither pain nor pleasure? These beliefs lead me to conclude that humans cannot determine the ethics of the nonliving world, nor declare any nonliving element as intrinsically valuable. However, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which natural destruction does not result in the suffering of sentient life. Therefore, I believe humanity has a moral duty to preserve the nonliving world, though only because of its impact on sentient life.
Suffering, defined as negative experience, is the only element that human comprehension can declare as objectively bad. Therefore, the absence of suffering is objectively good, and ethical behavior is dictated by actions that minimize the total pain experienced by all sentient individuals. Acting to reduce the total amount of pain in the world is the ultimate ethical duty of moral agents. Humanity is especially burdened with this responsibility because of our unparalleled mental and physical capabilities. Although other species are undoubtedly capable of experiencing pain, they cannot reflect on the more significant impacts of their decisions. Humans are uniquely able to factor the experience of others in their decision-making processes. Furthermore, no species parallels the human ability to destroy species. Both our unprecedented ability to act upon reason and inflict widespread pain impose more ethical responsibility on humans than any other species.
Humanity is exceptionally obligated in the modern world to minimize the suffering that results from our behavior. In the wilderness, it is inevitable to kill other sentient individuals for survival. However, humankind is faced with a new set of moral dilemmas when killing is unnecessary, though still ingrained in our cultural beliefs, desires, and behavior. In the modern-day, humans must analyze the well-being we experience in comparison to the dependent suffering of non-human life. The short-term pleasure gained from luxury items does not justify the pain experienced by the non-human life. Although this philosophy may appear evident in instances such as trophy hunting and animal abuse, it also applies to more conventional practices. For example, eating meat is a luxury when chosen over other, equally available, plant-based alternatives. Therefore, first-world carnivorism is similarly unethical to purchasing a fur coat or trophy hunting since it is an unnecessary luxury derived from suffering.
Like most ethical assertions, my conclusions raise further dilemmas. Primarily, it is challenging to measure suffering, nevertheless compare units of pain. How do we determine the amount of suffering experienced by non-human life? Many argue that complexity and intelligence make creatures more susceptible to pain. Is this truly the case, or is complicated life merely more efficient in expressing their suffering? If the former is correct, we must determine whether to weigh different sentient species differently in our utility calculation. As it is more ethical to kill a pine tree than a fly because plants experience less suffering, is it more ethical to kill a fly than a rabbit since insects possess simpler central nervous systems? Philosophers must confront this dilemma unless they maintain a universal maxim that killing animals is always immoral. Although such a maxim would promote the welfare of non-human life regardless of their complexity and relationship to humans, it could also raise further dilemmas in particular situations. For example, varying degrees of sentience could prove relevant when contemplating whether to test insects for a vaccine for humans.
Our readings so far expose the complexities of individual cases, prompting me to believe that a case-by-case basis must determine moral behavior. However, each case involves creatures capable of suffering, the only element which humans can declare objectively bad. Humans have a moral duty to minimize the total amount of pain experienced by all sentient individuals, especially considering our unparalleled ability to reason, factor the experiences of others, and conduct widespread suffering. With our higher intelligence comes a greater responsibility to learn more about the experiences of non-human individuals and behave in a manner that maximizes their well-being. Throughout the remainder of this course, I will continue to contemplate the duties that moral agents have to sentient beings and how suffering could be measured. Most importantly, I will continue learning about specific case studies that challenge and ultimately strengthen my understanding of environmental ethics.