Everyone has an interest in ethics. There are billions of people in this world, each with different beliefs about right and wrong (or good and bad). Whether we get our beliefs from religion, family, or philosophy, it is important to know when our beliefs affect others. For this reason, ethics is very important because, our religion, family, or philosophy influences our beliefs and our actions that affect others.
Our beliefs influence our actions and our actions affect others. Our beliefs are important to us but our actions are important to others.
Just as we should be thoughtful about what we do and how if affects others, we should extend this compassion to animals. All animals feel, think, and experience pleasure and pain, and care about their lives.
This overview of animal ethics aims to identify various ways that humans have viewed animals throughout history. It is not exhaustive, only presenting main ideas in a chronological order. This perspective hopefully clarifies what recent perspectives on animals are responding to and building upon.
Humans have hunted animals for around two-million years (McKie, 2012).
All dogs share common ancestors with wolves that began to hunt alongside man and scavenge for leftovers around 33 thousand years ago (The Telegraph, 2015).
Sheep are thought to be the first animal domesticated for food between 11 and 13 thousand years ago in Southwest Asia (Lear, 2012).
The spiritual doctrine of ‘Ahimsa’, a core value of Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism emerges in India.
Many ancient Greek philosophers viewed the world as hierarchical, with humans at the top, animals below, and plants at the bottom. Correspondingly, animals were thought to be used for man, just as plants were to be used by animals. Some ancient Greek philosophers restrained from eating meat, but usually to practise virtues like moderation and self-restraint.
Pythagoras believed that ‘animals share with us the privilege of having a soul’ (Ovid, trans. 1958) and that human souls were reincarnated into animals after death. Followers of Pythagoras throughout the ages refrained from eating animals, but would consume dairy and eggs, in what would become known at the Pythagorean diet.
Rene Descartes’ philosophy of mind (known as dualism) claims that human capacities (like rational thought, language, and self-awareness) could not arise from material processes alone. As such, the human mind was said to be the result of an immaterial soul, and since animals could not reason nor use language rationally, animals could not have a mind and therefore could not suffer or have mental experiences. Descartes believed that animals were mindless machines.
Descartes would explain the behaviour of animals that resembled the experiences of pain as mechanistic reflexes. Thus, according to Descartes, animals could be used in any way necessary without considering their interests nor welfare. This view gained acceptance conveniently at a time when a scientific interest in vivisection was growing, alleviating moral concern for dogs (and other animals) that would display observable reactions while being operated on without anaesthetic.
Immanuel Kant was a Prussian philosopher that said ‘every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will’ (2002). Since animals were not rational, according to Kant, they were merely objects to be used, not ends-in-themselves. Kant (and other philosophers) use the phrase ‘means-to-an-end’ and ‘end-in-themselves’ to explain their view on an animal or objects purpose. If an animal is a ‘means’, then it is able to be used to achieve some other goal, but if an animal is an ‘end-in-itself’ then their life is a goal itself, and cannot be used to achieve another goal.
Kant believed that it is immoral to use rational beings (like humans) merely as a means-to-an-end, and that animals are not rational beings that can be used as a means to serve man. This theory of morality, known as Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’, defines rational beings as persons (a philosophical term for someone whose interests are taken into consideration in ethical decisions).
Contrasting this categorical imperative is the utilitarian view that views persons as having the ‘utility’ of being used as a means towards pleasure/happiness. In summary, Kant would say that use is not permitted of any being that is rational, while the utilitarians would say that all use is permitted if it results in the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’.
In its determination of moral acts, utilitarianism considers the interests of all affected beings, and while many utilitarians since Bentham have ignored animals’ welfare, Bentham did extend his theory to include animals’ interests:
The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. [italics in original] (Bentham, 1789)
In contrast to Descartes, who argued that animals’ interests need not be taken into consideration, Bentham asks: ‘The question is not, “can [animals] reason?” nor, “can they talk?” but, “can they suffer?”’
While Bentham provided a framework for considering animals in his ethical system, he did not exclude the possibility of using them. In short, utilitarianism is not absolutely opposed to using human nor animals if the use results in more pleasure than pain. Utilitarianism is therefore the basis for the welfare approach to animal ethics, as oppose to the rights approach. As Fieser points out, Utilitarianism’s primary concern is for the welfare of beings rather than proposing inalienable rights to humans and animals:
Animal welfare theories accept that animals have interests but allow those interests to be traded away as long as the human benefits are thought to justify the sacrifice, while animal rights theories say that animals, like humans, have interests that cannot be sacrificed or traded away to benefit others. … Supporters of the animal rights movement believe that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation, while supporters of the animal welfare movement believe that animals can be used for those purposes as long as ‘humane’ guidelines are followed. (Fieser, 2010)
Founded in Britain in 1824, the Society for the Protection of Animals (SPCA) is the The YouTube ID of Insert video URL or ID here is invalid. oldest (and first) animal welfare charity to be founded anywhere in the world. Primarily concerned in reducing suffering and reforming established animal use to be less cruel, the SPCA has successfully lobbied for new laws in animal welfare since early in its inception (for example, the Cruelty to Animal Act 1835). In 1840 the SPCA was renamed the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA).
In Britain, a variety of different groups came together in 1847 to form the Vegetarian Society. Before this time, a diet like vegetarianism would be referred to as the Pythagorean diet (after the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras who abstained from eating meat and took a philosophical stance against killing animals). There were numerous reasons for the members of the Vegetarian Society following its diet, for: personal health, religious moderation and self-restraint, the perceived unnaturalness of eating meat (Christian religious reasons), to encourage social reform, and to reject its perceived enablement of social aggression.
Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species published in 1859, presented the view that all life on Earth has evolved over massive time periods through the mechanism of natural selection. Random variations in individuals of a species would be ‘selected’ by the environment based on how favourable they were to the individual’s survival. Over time, entire populations changed characteristics due to environmental pressures. This presented a dramatic change in perspective for mankind in relation to other animals.
Prior to this time, a common view in Western society was that, humans were created in the image of God and are distinct from the animal kingdom. Darwin’s theory presented humans as different to animals in degree, not in ‘kind’. Humans now had to consider that they are related to the other animals as much as they are related to each other, as oppose to seeing themselves as categorically different from animals.
In 1892, Henry Salt published Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress, which was forward thinking and included many of the modern concepts relating to animal rights.
In 1944, Donald Watson in London coined the word vegan when founding the Vegan Society. The Vegan Society defined veganism as: ‘a philosophy and way of life which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.’
The word ‘speciesism’ (species-ism) first appeared in a pamphlet published by Richard Ryder of the Oxford Group (see below). Speciesism is the idea that it is not a good reason to treat others differently just because they are of a different species than you.
Speciesism is similar to racism or sexism; sexism relies on picking ‘sex’ as the criteria for excluding certain people from equal concern; racism relies on ‘race’ as the criteria for exclusion; speciesism relies on picking the species of a living being to ignore their suffering. Species association itself cannot justify exploitation or use, any more than race or sex categorisation can.
A group of philosophers called the Oxford Group, published Animals, Men and Morals: An Inquiry into the Maltreatment of Non-humans (1971). While not being the first book to present a case for animal rights (see 1892 above), the book was ground-breaking at the time because it argued for animal rights instead of animal welfare. The book contained an essay by Richard Ryder which explored the concept of speciesism.
Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher, published ‘Animal Liberation’ in 1975. In this work, Singer acknowledges that speciesism is prevalent in modern society and rejected it in favour of an animal-inclusive version of utilitarianism. The book details the use of animals in modern society in two main areas: scientific research and factory farming. It also covers the main questions that someone would ask when interested in going vegetarian, and details the history of the animal rights movement. Writing in an approachable manner, Singer’s book has had a substantial influence in the modern animal welfare/rights movements. While Singer is not vegan, he is vegetarian and explains that vegans ‘are living demonstrations of the practicality and nutritional soundness of a diet that is totally free from the exploitation of other animals’ (2009).
While Singer doesn’t argue for inalienable animal rights, he does make the case that the current use of animals in society is both horrific and inexcusable. Singer’s view is that animals can feel pleasure and pain and so have interests of their own and therefore are not means to our ends. Being a utilitarian, Singer’s view can be categorised as a ‘welfare approach’ to animal ethics because it argues for the consideration of the animal’s welfare in calculations of their use. For Singer, it is acceptable to use animals if it results in ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. Not to simplify Singer’s position, Singer does propose a cessation of animal use for almost all cases in modern society (most of the killing of animals for food, testing, hunting, clothing, etc., and their unnecessary use in entertainment). So, even though it is possible that utilitarian principles could place animal use off-limits entirely (if in every calculation, their use did not result in the greatest good for the greatest number), in theory (and practise) utilitarianism does not grant rights to animals (or humans for that matter) because it cannot guarantee that their use won’t always result in some greater good for some greater number.
For example, Singer’s ethical code would allow for animals to be tested on if the outcome was worthwhile: killing one animal to save two other animals; killing one human to save two humans (assuming equal consideration of interests in both examples). But what about killing one animal to save one human? Again, Singer proposes by considering the interests of all affected parties equally and without speciesism, the outcome that results in the greatest good for the greatest number is the ‘right’ act; as long as an act results in greater good for greater numbers, any act is permitted. Of course, in reality, Singer is far more skeptical of vivisection and the scientific testing on animals for human purposes to approve of such a simplified scenario, but in theory, utilitarianism would allow for the use of any being if it resulted in the benefit of a greater number of beings.
This consequentialist feature of utilitarianism has been criticised by many ethicists, despite continuing to be a prevalent basis for modern ethics. Interestingly, utilitarianism (through Singer) brought animals into the moral concern of wider modern society, but then be unable to offer inalienable rights, a feature that would ultimately cause it the most criticism by animal rights advocates later.
Tom Regan published A Case For Animal Rights in 1983, presenting an argument for animal rights. Regan responds to Kant’s categorical imperative in a way that highlights the necessity to include animals within an ethical theory.
Regan’s argument is succinctly summarised by Josephine Donovan (1993):
Regan makes his case by countering Kant’s theory that human moral patients (i.e., those who are severely retarded, infants, or others unable to reason) need not be treated as ends. This to Regan is unacceptable. Therefore, if one accepts both moral agents and moral patients as entitled to the basic respect implied in the notion of rights, Regan argues, it follows that nonhuman moral patients (animals) must be included in the category of those entitled to be treated as ends. To argue otherwise is speciesist; that is, it arbitrarily assumes that humans are worth more than other life forms.
Gary Francione is an American professor of law and philosophy who has established ‘the abolitionist approach’ to animal rights. The abolitionist approach borrows its name from the abolitionists of the United States’ 19th century civil rights movement. The abolitionist approach is two things at once: a set of animal-rights and an approach to animal-rights advocacy.
The animal rights that Francione proposes rely on the criteria that sentience determines whether a being is worthy of moral concern. Francione says that ‘all sentient beings are equal for the purpose of not being used exclusively as a resource’, and that all sentient beings share ‘the right not be treated as property of others’. Since animals are sentient, Francione argues that animal rights advocates ‘abolish, and not merely regulate, institutionalized animal exploitation’.
Francione explains in Animals, Property and the Law (1995) how animal rights will never be established in law while animals are legally considered to be property. In his 1996 book, Rain without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement, Francione criticised the existing animal rights organisations for being ineffective, counterproductive, and speciesist. Francione labels existing animal rights organisations the ‘new-welfarists’ because, unlike the utilitarian welfarists that were only concerned about animals’ welfare, new-welfarists claim to seek the establishment of animal rights, while in practise, promote welfare reforms whose historical results make them indistinguishable from welfarist organisations. Francione sees new-welfarists as missing the opportunity to advocate for inalienable animal rights.
Francione’s ‘moral imperative’ is his claim that: ‘it is a moral imperative to be vegan if animals matter morally’. Therefore, according to the abolitionist approach, veganism is a moral-baseline; veganism is the starting point for a moral life, the least of which a moral person must adhere to.
Melanie Joy is an American professor of psychology and sociology that developed the term ‘carnism’ to describe the ideology of meat eating (Joy, 2001). By labelling the ideology of a diet which is inclusvie of animal products, Joy is able to ‘deconstruct the invisibility of the system, exposing the principles and practises of a system that has since its inception been in hiding’ (Joy, 2010).
In addition to bringing carnism to light and challenging its dominance in most modern cultures, Joy is able to criticise the three main ways that meat eating maintains its acceptance: ‘it is necessary, normal, and natural to eat meat’.
In 2012, an international group of scientists released a public statement called the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness. It declared that animal consciousness is not exclusively a human capacity, given the evidence of similar ‘neurological substrates that generate consciousness’ found in animals.
Joel Marks, an American philosopher, is an amoral vegan abolitionist. Amorality is the general assertion that morality does not exist, Joel explains that only after retiring from a career as a moral realist, did he have an ‘anti-epiphany’ that: ‘religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no [objective] morality’ (Marks, 2012). Marks, having rejected the arguments for god, concludes that there are no mind-independent morals and has proposed an ethic ‘theory’ of desirism to explain human behaviour.
Desirism begins without the assumption that morals are real principles in the universe, and accepts that humans have desires. It is our desires that account for our wants and behaviours. Marks would reject any assertion that principles exist independent of the human mind. For Marks, there is no imperative to obey moral principles b ecause morality does not exist. Furthermore, Marks would argue that individual desires are all that should account for an ethical consideration. Marks is a vegan that desires animal liberation, the same abolition of animal use that Francione wants, however he fundamentally disagrees with Francione’s moral assumptions and would approach animal advocacy in a different way.
Human interaction with animals, and views about human-animal relationships, have changed dramatically throughout history. Over two million years ago, animals might have been seen as mysterious beings that shared out environment, with various features and abilities often completely different to our own. As we began to interact with animals more, our views have constantly developed: animals became things we could use for food, things to interact with according to various moral virtues, things to use without concern, beings that have interests that deserve consideration, and subject-of-a-life that deserve the inalienable right to life and autonomy. Now, that we see similarities between ourselves and animals, indicates a dramatic change in perspective from the earliest human-animal interactions. The pertinent question then –if we share many similarities between animals– is whether the differences are of relevance and sufficient to influence our ethics on how to interact with them.
The current discourse on animal ethics has benefited from the long history of different views on animals. Empirical evidence (like studies exploring animal consciousness, or research on whether welfare reforms are an effective step towards animal liberation) and new technologies (like cultured meat, and genetic selection/modification) will require new ideas about human-animal interaction to arise, but by understanding the history of animal ethics, we can better hope to generate new ideas and recognise old ones.
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