This paper questions Singer’s central thesis of a sentience continuum, showing some overlaps enough to map into a major equality of rights within as well as across species beyond mankind.
Singer arrives at a generalization, which can be accepted along some Kantian and Rousseavian lines of seeing others as ends rather than means only. However, one could refute it as an ultimate implication, while additionally questioning some interim points that have led to it. More specifically, the egalitarian perspective at study seeks to dismiss some of the racist, sexist, or ‘speciesist’ prejudices by addressing the rights of species at large beyond the human domain.
The initial point is that merits cannot possibly count more heavily in defining the rights of entire groups, races, or sexes than some other dimensions do, if only because individual differences are, at times, more pronounced than inter-group variations. Although there is no denying that sexes and races have apparent peculiarities of their own, other than that, it is not clear whether aggregate heterogeneity is due to innate or environmental factors. In a sense, then, it would be about as awkward placing a higher value or relevance on the rights of select races or sexes as it would be to maintain a heavier vote for individuals boasting a higher IQ. In fact, many individuals have no discretion of the way their merits have been shaped. One extreme case would pertain to handicapped persons who apparently should not be denied any basic consideration on par with others based on that. More importantly, the bulk of the disadvantage may have accrued because of prior bias or historical discrimination. For instance, education may long have been restricted if downright denied to the otherwise apt women historically, and the same goes for the blacks, which illustrates a self-induced kind of crisis or gap.
Therefore, it is natural to presume that there must be something more ultimate as well as common to all the groups that ought to underpin the equality of rights beyond meritocracy. One is led to invoke the ability to suffer as a candidate explanatory cause and a criterion commonly shared by all the species. In fact, the more general notion of sentience is proposed to capture the ability to feel happiness and pain. In some expositions as mentioned in passing, this addresses the reasoning ability or rationality of some sort or another. Suffering remains key, though, perhaps because it is more universal as a life (animal) response to impulses, or, indeed, because it readily triggers human sympathy as well as empathy. In fact, Singer goes on to argue that most non-human species reveal a potential for suffering at least to the extent that humans do. That, among other things, would question the ethical premises of either eating non-humans or deploying them more willingly in inhumane experimenting, even if aimed at saving many lives. Not least, it is unclear why human imbeciles or embryos, signaling supposedly minor sentience, would be treated with far greater lenience and caution as compared to sentient non-humans. For one thing, pointing to the potential of growing more sentient could carry over to sperm and ova, thus questioning contraception. On the other hand, the hypothetic continuum of sentience or chain of being posits some overlaps rather than sharp lines or strict borders, in that some lower-species individuals prove more sentient than some upper-species (human) ones do. The transition is too fuzzy to allow for any kind of major discontinuity in treatment or consideration.
The latter central point can be objected in a number of ways. To begin with, it is unclear whether the thesis applies to the entire scope of rights or some basic right to life only. On the one hand, it is very reasonable for any setup to center around the rights or interests of the least well-off individuals. No further improvement should be phased in at their expense, until after the excessive slacks of resources have been tapped. On the other hand, it is unclear exactly why merits should not count in any manner, when it comes to defining excessive rights over and above the basic ones common to all. Invariance of that sort may render the whole framework irrelevant, trivial, or too special a case. For that matter, it is yet to be seen whether the ‘is’ versus ‘shall’ layers are that disjoint.
When it comes to sentience or even rationality, these could hardly be reduced to the hedonistic maximization of pleasures and minimization of pains per se. For starters, excessive pain or suffering could be prohibitive as well as meaningless, in which light euthanasia has been flagged by some advocates. On second thought, some suffering could be in the rational person’s best interests, even though one is reluctant to inflict these on him or herself.
More importantly, the study does not seem to have addressed all the extreme cases, if these could at all help in looking into the core agenda. In many legacies, it is the utterly rational individuals who exhibit the excessive ability to suffer as well as to control or restrain actual suffering. In many instances, they can introspectively empathize with alien or remote natures or sympathize with the neighbors’ pain without necessarily indulging in their pleasures. It would be a sheer paradox stumbling short of absurdity to argue it is the sage’s or pundit’s life that is worth the least rather than the most. It would be altogether unsafe to posit God as having the least say and not the most based on his presumably low or nonexistent propensity to suffer. One ironic and nearly as naïve a move would be to rush into impossibility theorems of some kind or another finding that God cannot therefore exist.
If we are to judge our setting based on constructivist criteria (i.e. exactly what does existence look like), we might want to question if sentience or any other pillar being proposed is a necessary, a sufficient, or a downright irrelevant domain to tap on the strength of its explanatory power. Singer may be right in pointing out that humans are but a minor fraction of the sentience continuum, but does his own explanation amount to anything but one aspect amongst the many? For that matter, does a continuum of suffering map into that of rights as a matter of a monotone correspondence of some kind? The existence of polar extremes, i.e. imbeciles versus geniuses or saints as showing about the same propensity to suffer, would suggest on the contrary.
When it comes to DNA tests, people of all the races and sexes do indeed look very much alike. In fact, it is only the very minor section of the genome code that accounts for individuality. What is more important, it is very difficult to desolate the genotype versus the phenotype factors, as these are largely intertwined and interactive. However, it happens so that species at large look alike genetically, which criterion does appear to fit with the conjectured sentience continuum.
However questionable, his reference to some extreme cases could regain some validity if coupled with or contrasted against such like instances. In fact, the objected prior supremacy of human dignity would have to be either motivated as an asymptotic induction of some kind or otherwise shown empirically. Again, it is more readily evident in the corner cases of genius, sanctity, or divinity. Nevertheless, that only begs the issue of whether singularities can be compared, or if it is correct to compare the inferior subset of one set against the best in another group.
The point at study, though, is more subtle than anything one would address by means of the logical diagrams or syllogisms. For one thing, flat diagrams would be a collapsed or holographic image of the actual hierarchy of species. Worse yet, an overlapping continuum is not exactly something that one can tackle in reference to intuitively compelling analogies like the series of real numbers or regular sets. If those are fuzzy sets of some sort, classic logic may collapse. More so it holds, if the continuums are not really so continuous as to allow for any far-reaching syllogistic deduction. For instance, presuming inter-group homogeneity of any kind based on material intra-group homogeneity and some minor overlap could be a venture.
However, it is not clear if our extreme counterexamples qualifying other corner cases, e.g. divinity versus imbeciles, could be of ultimate relevance to the core or interior generalization. On the other hand, although Singer has attempted a critical generalization looking past the human bias or implicit ‘speciesism,’ it is yet to be seen whether alternates to suffering could do a better job as a central criterion. In any event, it is ironic just how some advocates of market inequality-as-freedom do bridge it to one other degeneracy collapsing rights to a democratic or competitive vote. In fact, that could be an instance of mass or might-making-right acting to further generalize the ‘home bias.’
A generalization should be qualified against a more complete set of corner cases suggesting the correspondent map of rights might not be very monotonous. One paradoxical outcome would be to deny any reasonable vote to those most merited (wise people) while awarding the most damage compensation to the utterly hedonistic plaintiff in court. Regardless of whether we invoke the tradition of applying the common-law cut-offs of ‘reasonable person’ or ‘reasonable doubt,’ it has to be clarified whether sentience as the ultimate hallmark can possibly account for all or most crucial rights, with otherwise merits or common traits faring as outright irrelevant.