With the exception (for some people) of the violence of war, and the execution of violent criminals who are deemed to be morally incorrigible, the vast majority of us agree that it is unquestionably wrong to unnecessarily kill a member of our own species (except in genuine instances of euthanasia, which is a highly sensitive issue and remains illegal throughout most of the world).
We consider killing humans to be wrong regardless of the individual’s cognitive abilities, moral capacity, mental health, sex, race, nationality, age or sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter whether the person in question is terminally suffering from dementia, psychologically ill, severely retarded or a productive genius – we believe it to be seriously wrong in all cases. If we consider any given case to be particularly egregious, it is often due to the individual’s vulnerability, not to any mental or moral characteristics he or she may possess.
By stark contrast, the majority of us act as if there is absolutely nothing wrong with unnecessarily killing a member of certain other species of sentient beings. But what rational basis do we have for such a discrepancy in our perception? What quality is found in all and only humans that could possibly point to the conclusion that the lives of other animals are unimportant?
Intelligence or moral capacity as a criterion would make the lives of millions of humans (such as certain individuals suffering from dementia, those who are mentally disabled, and infants) equally expendable. Among human and nonhuman animals, traits such as intelligence and moral capacity exist on an overlapping continuum, making any line-drawing in this regard arbitrary.
But even if there was a distinct cutoff with regard to some criterion such as intelligence or moral capacity, would it matter when it comes to an interest in continued existence and not being killed unnecessarily? When we stop and think about it, such a distinction wouldn’t matter in the least. This is because, just as eyes are sufficient for an interest in continuing to see, and ears are sufficient for an interest in continuing to hear, so sentience alone – the ability to experience one’s life – is sufficient for an interest in continued existence.
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