For the best formatting of this chapter's text, please download the free PDF file and/or purchase the paperback.
This chapter will survey the most influential “theories of animal ethics,” i.e., general theories that attempt to explain the nature and extent of our moral obligations toward animals, which have been used to argue in defense of animals. As we will see, these theories are often extensions or developments of the moral theories that have been developed to explain how humans ought to treat other human beings. These thinkers often argue that the moral theory (or theories) that best explain the nature and extent of our moral obligations to human beings (especially vulnerable ones, such as babies, children, the mentally challenged, the elderly, and so on) have positive implications for many animals as well. Thus, they often argue that there are no relevant differences between the kinds of cases to justify protecting human beings but allowing serious harms to animals and, therefore, animals are due moral protections comparable to at least those given to comparably-conscious, aware, sentient human beings.
This Chapter will get an initial presentation of three of the most influential methods of moral thinking for human to human interactions that have been extended to apply to human to animal interactions, i.e., how humans ought to treat non-human animals.
These perspectives are, first, a demand for equality or equal moral consideration of interests (developed by Peter Singer; however he sometimes describes his ethical theory as a form of utilitarianism, although his book Animal Liberation does not presuppose it); second, a demand for respect of the moral right to respectful treatment (developed by Tom Regan); and, third, a demand that moral decisions be made fairly and impartially and the use of a novel thought experiment designed to ensure this (developed by Mark Rowlands, following John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of the twentieth century).
We want to try to focus on these theories in themselves and their implications for animals “in general,” without so much focus on what they imply for particular uses of animals, e.g., for food, fashion experimentation, entertainment, and other purposes. This attempt to make things a bit more abstract and general might seem forced, and we will surely understand the theories more deeply more when we see them applied to particular cases. Nevertheless, we want to try to evaluate these theories as true or false, well-supported or not, on their own terms.
Earlier we saw that scientists (and philosophers) sometimes use a pattern of reasoning known as inference to the best explanation to explain non-moral phenomena, e.g., the existence of minds. Ethicists use this form of reasoning also, although what is usually being explained is some clear moral intuition, or a moral judgment that nearly everyone agrees on (and seemingly for good reason). Again, the pattern is something like this:
- A moral judgment – J – seems true, and what makes it true requires explanation.
- Moral explanation or hypothesis T best explains the truth of J (i.e., T is a better explanation than other candidate explanations in that it makes sense of more of the data/observations/similar moral intuitions, allows us to make other moral judgments (thus enabling a kind of prediction, perhaps), is simpler, fits with pre-existing knowledge, etc.)
- Therefore, probably T, and what’s entailed by T, are true.
Singer seems to use this pattern of reasoning, starting with the widely accepted moral judgments that racism and sexism (and other prejudices) are wrong. He gives an analysis of what racism and sexism are – they are not easy to define – and gives an explanation for why they are wrong, arguing that this explanation is a better explanation than some rival explanations. He then argues that this explanation, which appeals to the principle of equality of consideration of interests, has positive implications for animals. Since many animals have interests, the prejudice that results in their interests being ignored is speciesism.
Regan argues similarly, starting with the informed intuition that the men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study were treated wrongly (p. 44; elsewhere he uses historical cases of harmful medical experiments on retarded children). He argues that the best explanation why they way these men (and children) were treated was wrong has positive implications for animals. He argues that these men had moral rights to life, bodily integrity, and respectful treatment. He develops the “subject of a life” sufficient condition for having basic moral rights to life, to bodily integrity and respectful treatment, shows that this criterion for moral rights applies to many animals as well, and that they thereby have moral rights as well.
In both cases, the pattern is to start with what we are confident with, think about the best reasons to support that confident judgment, and see that that these reasons have implications for areas that we perhaps have not thought about as carefully. We then see that that we have to revise our previous judgments about that new kind of case or, if we are to be consistent, revise our initial judgments (e.g., about the human cases), or argue that nothing follows from one kind of case to another because they are relevantly dissimilar. Singer, Regan and Rowlands, as well as the others, are clear on the logical options.
The cases for animals can be seen as an attempt to identify this ‘this’ here:
If a being is like this ____, then we must take its interests seriously, it’s wrong to harm it (except for very good reasons), we must respect it, etc.
Animal advocates typically argue that if we look at what we think about human beings, it appears that we think (or should think) that all human beings, especially those who are vulnerable – the very young and old – deserve such protections: e.g., none should be eaten, worn and experimented on. These philosophers argue that, for human beings, we seem to think the ‘this’ above is just consciousness or sentience or, as Regan puts it, being a “subject of a life,” and that this is a sufficient condition for it being the case that a being is wrong to harm. They argue that this principle applies to (some) animals as well, those animals that possess the relevant characteristics that humans have.
Most critics of this reasoning attempt to find other characteristics that would account for the wrongness of harming human beings, but seek characteristics that only human beings have and no animals have. The challenge is, first, finding these characteristics and, second, explaining why they are morally relevant.