Personhood, Ethics, and Animal Cognition: Situating Animals in Hare's Two Level Utilitarianism

Personhood, Ethics, and Animal Cognition: Situating Animals in Hare's Two Level Utilitarianism

Personhood, Ethics, and Animal Cognition: Situating Animals in Hare's Two Level Utilitarianism

Personhood, Ethics, and Animal Cognition: Situating Animals in Hare's Two Level Utilitarianism


R.M. Hare was one of the most important ethical theorists of the 20th century, and one of his graduate students, Peter Singer, became famous for his writings on animals and personhood. Singer now says that he endorses Hare's "two-level utilitarianism," and he has invoked the theory's distinction between "critical thinking" and thinking in terms of "intuitive level rules" in response to certain objections to his conclusions on several issues. Hare, however, never published a systematic treatment of how his theory applies to issues in animal ethics, and he avoided the concept of "personhood."

Gary Varner here fills this gap by defending the moral legitimacy of distinguishing among "persons," "near-persons," and "the merely sentient" within Harean two-level utilitarianism. He explores the implications of this distinction by applying the resulting ethical system to our treatment of animals, and shows how the results contrast with the more abolitionist conclusions reached by Singer on the same issues. In the process, he presents a new philosophical defense of two-level utilitarianism and its metaethical foundation (universal prescriptivism), and he significantly expands Hare's account of how "intuitive level rules" function in moral thinking, based on recent empirical research. The book also draws heavily on empirical research on consciousness and cognition in non-human animals as a way of approaching the question of which animals, if any, are "persons," or at least "near-persons.

Philosophers, including those interested in utilitarianism in general or Hare in particular, as well as others interested in animal ethics or the debate over personhood, will find Varner's argument of great interest.

"Professor Varner's earlier work, In Nature's Interests, is a very fine book. It has achieved a high level of respect from those working in the field, and is often seen as having set a new standard of debate in environmental ethics. That means that a new book by Professor Varner will be received with considerable interest. Varner draws on extensive recent empirical research regarding the degree to which animals are self-conscious and uses this information as the basis for the most serious discussion I have yet seen of whether any nonhuman animals can be considered 'persons'. There is, to my knowledge, no other book that goes into these issues anywhere near as deeply, in the context of assessing their significance for the normative issues of the wrongness of taking life, or other issues relating to ethical decision-making regarding our treatment of animals and some humans. I have no doubt that this book will, like In Nature's Interests, be seen as making an important contribution to the topics it covers." - Peter Singer, University Center for Human Values, Princeton University


In the fall of 2001 I taught a graduate course on “The Work of Peter Singer.” We began by reading R. M. Hare’s Moral Thinking, and I made the overarching theme of the seminar to ask how far Hare’s theory supported Singer’s conclusions on a range of issues in animal ethics. The rationale was that Singer was Hare’s graduate student at Oxford and Singer now claims to accept a version of Hare’s two-level utilitarianism. Ever since, I have been working on how Hare’s theory applies to the range of ways in which humans and animals interact. I originally presented the result to Oxford University Press as a single draft manuscript under the working title Harey Animals: Situating Animals in the Two-Level Utilitarianism of R. M. Hare. Although the title was rejected, the manuscript was accepted, but it seemed there were two projects, worth separating out into two volumes.

Hare’s theory is complicated in a number of ways, but the complications yield a more nuanced treatment of issues in animal ethics than competing theories. This first volume is a detailed treatment of the theory and those complications. Although I have tried to make it accessible to non-philosophers, this volume is intended primarily for philosophers, and my hope is that both ethical theorists and those focusing on animal ethics will read it. The ethical theorists will find a fresh defense of Hare’s theory and extensions of it that Hare himself did not foresee. The applied ethicists will find the kind of systematic application of his theory to questions about personhood and the moral status of animals that Hare himself never undertook.

The second volume, titled Sustaining Animals: Envisioning Humane, Sustainable Communities (Varner forthcoming), will focus on applying the theory to a broad range of issues in animal ethics: animal agriculture, which is treated more briefly in part III of the present volume, but also pet ownership and working animals, scientific research on animals, and wildlife/ecosystem management. My hope is that the sequel will be read by a range of people interested in animal ethics, including applied ethicists, but also animal activists, veterinarians, animal scientists, psychologists, and others interested in animal ethics. The emphasis in that volume will be less on defending Hare’s theory than on emphasizing the ways in which it sheds light on issues in animal ethics, and readers wishing a more detailed philosophical defense of the theory will be directed back to this volume.

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