My views


1. What ultimately matters. I agree with utilitarians that only well-being has inherent value. Everything else is good or bad only instrumentally. What matters in an ultimate sense is that sentient beings enjoy the best possible lives. The highest good would consist then in each sentient entity that has ever existed and will ever exist having an infinite amount of net positive well-being. Since the universe contains limited resources, that is probably impossible. Furthermore quintillions of sentient beings have had and will have lives of net suffering. Unless we obtain the ability to change the past, our only opportunities of approximating the universe as it is to what it would better be lie in influencing the future. Especially the far future, which is when most sentient individuals will exist. It would be best if we used our scarce resources to ensure we will reengineer as much of the universe as possible into a paradise.

Different approximations to that ideal entail different compromises about value. Philosophers who work in population ethics disagree how such compromises should be ranked. I do not have strong beliefs about this problem. Philosophers also disagree about the constituents of well-being. I very strongly believe that hedonic states, such as pleasure or pain, are some of those constituents. I do not believe now that well-being has other basic elements. Nevertheless, I could be mistaken. I would be disposed to broaden my views on well-being if that were necessary to ground some of my other considered beliefs. So far that has not happened, but I do not discard that possibility.

2. Morality. I understand morality as the dispositions to desire and to act which agents ought to have in order to bring about the best possible approximation of maximal happiness for all. There are good reasons to believe that morality cannot consist, however, in a single injunction to that effect.

Human beings are very poor instruments with which to achieve any approximation to universal maximal happiness. This is because we suffer from serious epistemic, motivational and logistical limitations. First, we do not have enough information or processing power to determine with certainty the long-term effects of our choices; and dozens of cognitive biases muddle our reasoning. Second, we are designed to be partial towards ourselves, our friends, our relatives and the groups with which we identify. Indeed, it’s hard to see how beings such as us (and many other sentient animals) could be maximally happy without cultivating those kinds of special relationships. Third, we cannot do the greatest possible good alone. Morality is a collective project which requires global and intergenerational cooperation. However, we are talking about cooperation among epistemically and motivationally limited agents. Furthermore, these agents will often deeply disagree not only about natural or social facts, but also about what ultimately matters and about the content of morality itself. Given all these facts about ourselves as agents, if we simply acted on a disposition to bring about universal maximal happiness the result would be, I think, disastrous.

Morality must consist, then, in those dispositions which allow for the most successful cooperation in this endeavour. It must consider the interests of all sentient beings, and not just some human agents. It must include strict but defeasible rules prohibiting causing harm to others, requiring us to help them and allowing for a modicum of partiality towards ourselves and those close to our hearts. It must compel us to establish increasingly inclusive social and political institutions that allow us to perpetuate the conditions in which agents can cooperate among themselves to bring about the good and in which all sentient beings can pursue their happiness. These institutions must ensure that, in spite of our disagreements, we influence each other only through persuasion: by reason-giving and reason-taking. Importantly, it must include a very strong disposition to seek ways to overcome our limitations through social or technological means so as to become better at doing the good.

3. Politics. Most authors believe that liberty or freedom is the supreme value in the political realm. I am persuaded by that view. I do not believe that political and social freedom has any inherent value, since, as I explained above, I think only well-being does. However, as I also explained above, I strongly believe that our social and political institutions should be designed to guarantee that our interactions ultimately proceed only in terms acceptable by all through reason-giving and reason-taking. Like John Stuart Mill, I assign quite a bit of credence to the claim that to optimise for maximal universal happiness we should design institutions that maximise freedom as if it were valuable in an ultimate way. This should create a framework in which science and the arts can flourish and in which each sentient being can live on her own terms, free from the uncontrolled interferences of others. I believe that the republican conception of freedom as non-domination is the one best suited as the regulative ideal that should guide us in designing our institutions. By being more demanding than competing accounts of freedom, it minimises the chances that the powerful may impose their terms on the rest, stifling the pursuit of truth and happiness.

Nonhuman animals

1. Animals matter. The scientific consensus is that most animals, including all vertebrates and some invertebrates like octopuses, are sentient. The jury is still out regarding many other invertebrates: their sentience cannot be conclusively ruled out. All sentient beings, including both those whose existence we know of and those still to discover, have a well-being of their own that we must take into account in our moral deliberation. Nonhuman animals’ interests not to suffer, not to die and to enjoy their lives matter as much as similar human interests. Assigning less importance to the interests of animals, or dismissing them altogether, simply because they do not belong to the human species is a form of unjustified discrimination, usually called speciesism. Rejecting speciesism entails recognizing that, all else being the same, we have a duty not to harm animals in those circumstances in which it would be wrong to harm humans, just as we have a duty to help them in those circumstances in which it would be wrong to refuse help to humans in need.

Trillions of animals suffer terribly under direct human control. At a minimum, we should avoid causing serious harms to animals in the pursuit of trivial human interests. The economic activities in which animals are harmed in this way would thus be morally wrong. These include the production of fur, leather or silk; testing cosmetic or household goods or entertainment. They also include the food industry, which by far concentrates the greater part of animals. If adequately supplemented, plant-based diets are perfectly healthy. Thus, eating animals is not necessary to preserve human health. That is not to say that humans do not derive some benefit from eating animals. Still in most cases, these consist merely in the marginal pleasure produced by enjoying a certain flavour. This is an aesthetic pleasure similar to the one obtained by enjoying bullfighting or fox hunting. From a non-speciesist perspective, the basic interests not to suffer of these animals are more important than the pleasure obtained in savouring them. We have decisive reasons to phase out these economic activities by, among others, changing our consumer choices.

Many more animals, probably a quintillion of them, live in nature. Evidence suggests that they likely have lives of net suffering. That is, suffering not caused by human action, but by the ordinary course of nature. Most of these animals have an untimely death shortly after coming into existence. Many will face starvation, thirst, disease, parasites, extreme weather conditions and aggressions by other animals. If we take seriously the well-being of these individuals, we must conclude we have a strong duty to ensure their lives are as good as possible, or at least, to alleviate their suffering. It is true that we should not intervene, even with the most benevolent of intentions, unless we have sufficient evidence we will not end up doing more harm than good. It is also true that we do not yet have the scientific knowledge and the technical means to engage in large scale interventions. That, however, implies that we have a duty to obtain that knowledge and those means, so that we learn how to help wild animals more effectively. We should aspire to acquire the capacity to engineer paradise, thereby redesigning natural processes and animal organisms themselves, so that all sentient beings have the best possible lives.

2. Animal citizenship. I believe that, ideally, all nonhuman animals should become free and equal citizens of our democratic communities. In the neorepublican tradition I am inclined to endorse, citizenship consists in possessing a protected status against private domination across a range of fundamental choices, and sharing in the control of government to prevent public domination.

In this way, we need to secure animals against domination by their fellow human citizens in a set of fundamental liberties by enfranchising them in a system of law and other social norms. These fundamental or basic liberties are those choice-situations in which animals must be able to act on their own terms if they are to function as equal members of our society and be recognised as such by their fellow human citizens. Any plausible account would entail that the harms that animals are inflicted in the food or fashion industries, as well as through hunting or fishing, constitute clear restrictions in their most important choice-domains and are, additionally, forms of domination. They result from the exercise of an uncontrolled power of interference by human beings. Animals should be protected by an institutional shield against these and other invasions in their freedom. Most forms of animal exploitation would, therefore, be forbidden. Regarding wild animals, given the likely prevalence of naturogenic suffering in their lives, even absent domination the extension of their freedom would close to nil. As Martin Luther King said, quoting Frederick Douglass, it would be ‘freedom to hunger, freedom to the winds and rains of heaven, freedom without roofs to cover their heads […] freedom and famine at the same time.’ Wild animals have an interest in natural entities and processes which do not restrict their most important choice-situations to simply flee-or-fight, greater or lesser suffering, or a more or less painful death. The republican ideal would commit us to improve the richness of their choices to some extent.

We also need to guarantee that animals have an equal share in the control of government, thus ensuring that public policy is influenced in the long run also by their interests. Therefore, we still need to show that we can design a system which reliably forces us to track the interests of animals in our political deliberation, thus preventing public domination.