Is Killing Painlessly Okay?
An Animal Rights Article from


Alex Melonas on
March 2010

Let me ask, if I were to kill you painlessly, while you slept, would I be harming you? If yes, then why? I suspect that all those reasons you give will similarly apply to nonhuman animals, and that's why killing them raises an ethical issue, not just the quality of their lives.

Is my death a harm to me? It is a profound question. If I were to die today (painlessly because suffering is bad), would I be harmed in some way? The case of nonhuman animal death is similarly profound. In the case of my death, we may not reason our way to the conclusion that dying is bad, but we do assume it. With nonhuman animals, however, we often make no such assumption.

Interestingly enough, people explicitly acknowledge a prima facie obligation not to cause the death of animals, presumably because that would be bad. Most accept the proposition that it is wrong to kill animals "unnecessarily." This means that killing an animal is only justified if it is "necessary" (whatever that means), and therefore we have a moral obligation not to kill the animal if it cannot be shown to be justified. However, on the specific proposition that the death of a nonhuman animal is a harm to the animal herself, many demur, instead focusing on the quality of life. This causes a dilemma for the "animal rights" advocate. If death isn't a harm to the animal for some reason, then it is limiting suffering leading up to that death, or quality of life, that we ought to be concerned about. This would mean that killing painlessly is ethically justified.

The arguments of Peter Singer, Gary Francione, and Tom Regan are going to help me think through this issue.

Tom Regan's approach to this problem is deeply problematic. It seems to take two forms. One is similar to Peter Singer's, which I will address shortly; the second I'll discuss now. Regan argues that because the potential life experiences for nonhuman animals are qualitatively not-as-good as those for human animals, the death of the latter is objectively worse. Regan doesn't assume that nonhuman animals don't have an interest in continuing to live (although some may disagree with my interpretation). They do because death is the ultimate impediment to continuing to have pleasurable or fulfilling experiences, according to Regan, and that's why it's impartially bad for sentient beings. (This is an excellent answer to the question, Why is death bad?) However, Regan seems to tacitly accept John Stuart Mill's argument that the life of even the most delighted animal is not as good as the life of the most unhappy human (assuming this human is utilizing her "better faculties"). This is a normative judgment standing in for a valid argument. Neither Mill nor Regan can reasonably claim that my life experiences are intrinsically better than those of a cow because they don't know what it is to be a cow. The subjective experiences of a cow are foreign to members of our species, and therefore a ranking system that places our experiences above those of the cows is inherently subjective, of course biased in favor of the rank-er.

Those who make these kinds of arguments assume that because some members of our species (although they won't acknowledge it to be some members) possess certain elevated cognitive faculties, perhaps unique within the animal kingdom, our conception of happiness - what happiness is to us - will likewise be elevated, or better. But this qualitative evaluation must necessarily rely on experience as the evaluative tool: "I've experienced both, and one is better than the other." However, given that a human cannot experience the life of a pig as a pig, this criterion, which I assume to be Regan's as well, isn't satisfied. It is simply a restatement of the tired proposition that human animals are "special"; the only difference is what we are now indexing for: our biological group isn't inherently better, but the experiences of our biological group are. These kinds of evaluations within our own species have engendered controversy and philosophical debate for centuries. To move beyond the boundary of species merely compounds the problem of evaluation many, many, many times over.

According to Peter Singer, one must be able to imagine herself as existing over time to have an interest in continued life. Singer makes an assumption that (most) nonhuman animals - and many human animals - do not possess the cognitive capacity to conceive of their lives over time, of the future and them in it: "I want to have a child in the next five years," for example. He concludes then that it is not logical to argue that nonhuman animals, or human infants, some mentally handicapped humans, and the severely senile, have an interest in not dying because they don't have an interest in realizing their future experiences since they solely exist in the now. Singer's reasoning logically holds together if his assumption about this interest and who has it is correct.

Gary Francione counters Singer's contention, arguing that sentience is an evolutionary means to an end. That end is life. Therefore, to argue that a sentient creature - human or nonhuman - doesn't have an interest in life is inherently contradictory. Francione's reasoning is teleological. Sentient beings are goal-directed organisms who have a "good of their own" (realizing these goals), and therefore impediments to this realization cause harm (i.e., they violate interests). Now, teleological approaches to Ethics are logically problematic. One cannot deduce claims about what ought to be from knowledge about the way the world is. These kinds of inferences don't follow. Francione avoids this logical trap however by not making conclusions about what ought to be. He simply refutes Singer's claim by making a reasonable inference from knowledge about the evolutionary function of sentience and what "is" conclusions seem to follow-for example, that sentient beings have an interest in continued existence, by definition. I believe Francione adequately refutes Singer's contention. For sentient beings, death does violate an interest, a profound interest indeed.

My conclusion then is this: Combing Francione's refutation of Singer with Regan's argument about why death is bad, for sentient beings, it seems reasonable to argue that death does violate an interest, an interest in continuing to experience happiness, which is essentially having things that you want to happen to you happen.

Let me ask, if I were to kill you painlessly, while you slept, would I be harming you? If yes, then why? I suspect that all those reasons you give will similarly apply to nonhuman animals, and that's why killing them raises an ethical issue, not just the quality of their lives.

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