Here’s a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip that I’ve been silently disagreeing with for about a week:
The part with which I disagree is “Moral standing is assigned to other creatures based on how similar they are to average human intelligence.” I’d say that the key consideration is that social life among humans involves an intricate mixture of competition and cooperation. Because a great deal is often at stake in our competitions with one another, conflicts of interest often render our judgments regarding one another unreliable. Because the most valuable goals for which we compete can be fully attained only among people who trust each other to act charitably toward one another, excessively aggressive behavior in competitive situations is usually counterproductive at both the individual level and for society at large.
Therefore, codes governing human conduct must begin by acknowledging that no one can be the judge in his or her our own cause. When we deal with someone who is in competition with us for the good things in life, we cannot justly demand the power to force that person to accept our decision that we should have access to these things and s/he should not. If we are not in direct competition, then perhaps one of us might be acceptable as judge over the other.
An extreme case would be selective breeding of humans. In various societies there have from time to time been projects to establish a central authority to decide who is allowed to reproduce and who is not. Since reproduction is one of the principal functions towards which humans and other living beings tend to be oriented, the stakes in this sort of decision are as high as they could possibly be. For that reason, no central authority could ever be established that would be able to make such decisions in a truly rational manner. Kinship groups compete with each other to produce offspring and to promote the interests of their offspring in the order of society; no conceivable human being could be altogether disinterested in the implications any particular a ruling for or against sterilization, for or against fertilization, for or against pairing, would have for his or her own kinfolk. Most judges would, consciously or unconsciously, discriminate in favor of unions that are likely to produce mates for his or her future descendants, and against unions that are likely to produce rivals for them. A few self-loathing individuals might discriminate in the opposite direction, but in no case would an altogether fair and above-board decision-making process be possible.
Compare this with the selective breeding humans conduct of other animals and of plants. We do not compete directly with any of the creatures whose breeding we direct. Sometimes we use them to compete with other groups of humans, as a more prosperous agricultural will gain the advantage over its neighbors and gain opportunities to drive them out of their land, and sometimes we use them to compete with other creatures that we classify as pests or weeds or pathogens. So, if we are to interact with the natural world in a healthy way, we ought to grant some form of moral standing to those pests and weeds and pathogens, inasmuch as our competition with them blinds us to the roles they play in the earth’s ecosystems. What that form of moral standing would be, and how it would be enforced, is of course not an easy question to answer. Religions that make particular places and particular species of animals sacrosanct may be good at doing that, though one can hardly be expected to adopt a religion in order to meet the requirements of a single argument from ethical theory.
Intelligence is not altogether irrelevant to the question of moral standing. Of course, creatures that are radically different from humans in average intelligence could not very well make a case for their interests in a way that humans could understand. What is more, the closer creatures are to one another in their abilities, the fiercer, and therefore the more distorting to perceptions, competition between them is likely to be. If it is difficult to imagine how a rhinovirus could gain a fair hearing for itself in a human court, it is scarcely any easier to imagine how a human struggling to save a wooden house from a termite colony could keep a clear view of that colony’s ecological role. Indeed, that human would likely see the corporate intelligence formed by the termite colony, not as a virtue calling for protection, but as a menace to be eradicated by any means necessary.