Animal Ethics

[Note: In the interests of being concise, I have linked to a number of relevant discussions and definitions throughout the article and at the end. Please feel free to explore these links as you read through, and continue the discussion in the comments at the bottom of this page!]


Ethics is the area of philosophy that deals with morality, with rights and wrongs, with “oughts:” How ought we behave? What are our obligations to others? What must we do, what is it okay to do, and what is it not okay to do?

child dog fieldAnimal ethics in particular deals with how we should behave toward nonhuman animals. Children often become interested in animal ethics at a very early age. Though Western societies, as professor of psychology William Crain notes, tend to “draw a sharp line between ourselves and other animals” (Crain xix), children are not born seeing this distinction. They are quickly taught by families, friends, and the media to put different species in categories: society tells us to see nonhuman animals as “others.” Still, before this sinks in, children likely spend a great deal of time interrogating how we relate to the nonhumans in their day-to-day lives – in their homes, in zoos, in parks, and perhaps all around them if they live far enough from a big city.

Significantly, this is often the time they realize that the meat on their plates used to be breathing, feeling animals just as sentient as their beloved dogs, cats, or other companion animals. For many children, the only contact they will have with cows, pigs, and birds is at mealtime, when it is often easy to become desensitized. They wonder if it makes sense to care for and love certain animals while hurting others. How do we make this distinction? Many children and adults who spend time thinking about this contradiction choose to adopt vegetarian or vegan lifestyles to avoid causing unnecessary suffering. Others believe that there are ways to protect or care for animals while still supporting animal slaughter in some or all cases.

A central issue in animal ethics, and one that helps to illuminate why people come to so many different conclusions about how we should treat nonhuman animals, is the difference between animal welfare and animal rights. Supporters of animal rights believe that nonhumans are entitled to certain independent legal rights. These rights may include the right not to be eaten, the right not to be forcibly impregnated, the right not to be experimented on, the right not to be forced to perform or ingest toxic doses of chemicals, and many other rights currently not granted to nonhuman animals in the majority of the world today. Animal welfare supporters are concerned mainly with how humans treat other animals. The focus is often on how to achieve better living conditions for animals who are kept in captivity and eventually killed by humans for food, entertainment, experimentation, and forced labour.

However, while rights activists hold that animals have inalienable rights independent of anyone else’s interests, welfarists may defend the view that even though animal welfare is important, human concerns are more important than the concerns of nonhuman animals. This view, held in some form by most humans today, is called speciesism. A speciesist philosopher may or may not be an animal welfare supporter in certain contexts, but will argue that if forced to choose, we should prioritize the interests of our species over others. These individuals maintain that this philosophy is justified because there are morally relevant grounds for putting all nonhumans on a lower level of moral concern than all humans, regardless of any factor besides species membership.

Finally, many philosophers insist that nonhuman animals do not merit inclusion in our moral circle at all. This is a more extreme form of speciesism that is held by fewer philosophers, hearkening back to the days of René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes believed that nonhuman animals were unconscious automata. If they actually had no direct experiences of their own, then they could not be said to have direct interests or a potential wellbeing to take into account, so any concern for animal welfare was predicated on an indirect notion of how human interests could be served by treating animals well. However, the automata theory has been largely disproved by contemporary biologists and neurologists, who have proven that nonhuman animals possess neurological systems much more like our own than they are different.

So why is there a difference between what many people consider acceptable to do to a member of one species versus another species? There are number of different proposed arguments against nonhuman animals’ rights. I discuss a few below, but I hope you’ll enjoy perusing the list of resources below for further exploration of animal ethics!

The Intelligence Argument

Some people believe that there is a notable difference in intelligence in nonhuman versus human animals. Humans have higher levels of intelligence, says this argument, and thus our interests are more important. However, other philosophers have pointed out that differences in intelligence is not a reason to discriminate among individual humans. What is it about nonhuman animals that makes their intellectual capabilities a relevant factor in how they are treated? Furthermore, the average nonhuman primate, pig, or dog is vastly more intelligent and independent than the average human infant. Projects on interspecies communication have revealed that nonhuman primates are capable of acquiring vocabularies of thousands of words, far more than human toddlers or even some adults with certain communication disabilities. Most of those who argue against nonhuman rights would not be prepared to deny rights to humans with similar language capabilities.

The Contractarian Argument

Some contractarian ethicists argue that nonhuman animals are not worthy of inclusion in our moral circle because they cannot enter into contracts with us. If they cannot promise not to hurt us, we are not required to refrain from hurting them. In response, other philosophers wonder whether not being able to enter into a moral contract is a reason to justify hurting someone. This is a particularly interesting dilemma to discuss with young children, because most will have had experience interacting with nonhuman animals as companion animals in their own homes or at friends’ houses. If your dog or cat cannot promise not to hurt you, does that give you the right to hurt him?

Some philosophers also worry that the contractarianism argument is inconsistent because many people who argue that nonhumans have “lower” intelligence than humans, and thus are entitled to fewer rights, also tend also to claim that humans possess greater moral reasoning capabilities than other animals. If this is the case, says the rebuttal, then we should be able to make the decision to show ethical restraint by not harming others unnecessarily.

The “Natural” Argument

Another common argument for animal exploitation is that animal consumption and subjugation is natural and has always been done. This raises many philosophical questions too. Young children are often particularly intrigued by the concept of the “natural,” since it is open to such wide interpretation. What does “natural” actually mean? If anything that an animal does is natural, is anything a human does natural? Does that make cars and computers natural (since we built them!)? If so, what isn’t natural? Does the word natural begin to lose its meaning? Is something that is natural always okay? What about other institutionalized practices that almost all human cultures have adopted for extended periods of our histories, but that we recognize today as abhorrent, like human slavery and genetic mutilation (which are currently legal to inflict on most nonhumans)?

In the Public Sphere

The ethical issue of non-human animal rights is rapidly gaining recognition around the world. The Nonhuman Rights Project is a non-profit devoted to gaining real legal rights for nonhumans around the world. India and Finland have declared dolphins to be official nonhuman persons, and many countries have recognized primates as persons with the autonomy and right to make decisions for themselves and not have their bodies and reproductive systems exploited and harmed for human interest.

However, in the United States today, nonhuman animals’ rights are generally not recognized. In the typical egg production facility, hens are held captive in battery cages, barren metal contraptions so tiny that each hen does not even have enough room to spread her wings, much less move around. For nearly their entire pregnancies, mother sows are confined to cramped gestation crates, painful metal cages that make it impossible to lie down comfortably or turn around. More standard factory farm practices are discussed in these pages at Farm Sanctuary. These “standard practices” are “routine” and legal, but often elicit horror and outrage from people learning about them for the first time. What is more, the things we do to animals who are raised for food, experimentation, and entertainment would be illegal were they done to a dog, cat, or human being.

In contrast to more abstract philosophical discussions in metaphysics and epistemology, animal ethics is particularly gripping for young people because it deals with issues that are directly affected by our day-to-day actions. Most of us interact directly with some nonhuman animals on a daily basis. Even if we live in cities and do not live with companion animals, we are likely to interact with pigeons and squirrels any time we leave the house. Every day, we make the choice whether to eat an animal or not to, and whether to support circuses that profit from animal humiliation instead of solely from human talent. We also must recognize that as beings who consume, we will inevitably cause some amount of destruction and suffering every day just by existing, particularly within the structure of today’s society that depends so much on industrialized agriculture and on technology that pollutes and destroys the environment. We each must take on the responsibility to evaluate our own circumstances to make rational choices that we feel good about. Hopefully the poems and questions on this site will give young philosophers the tools to delve a little more deeply into these ethical questions we face each day.

Peter Singer, a modern preference utilitarian philosopher, is considered one of the main fathers of the modern animal liberation and animal rights movement. In Animal Liberation, he outlines the principle of equal consideration of interests, which says that if we are going to treat someone differently based on a particular difference, then that difference must be morally relevant. Species, he argues, just like race, gender, or nationality, is not a morally relevant difference. It does not play a role in our ability to have interests and feel physical and emotional pain, so it should not play a role in one’s right to avoid suffering and to be treated with dignity.

References and Further reading

BBC Ethics guide. (2014) “The ethics of speciesism.”

Cohen, Carl. (1997) “Do Animals Have Rights?” 7(2), 91-102.

Cohen argues that animal rights are nonsensical, because the concept of “rights” is distinctly human.

Crain, William. The Emotional Lives of Animals & Children: Insights from a Farm Sanctuary.

Diamond, Cora. “Eating Meat and Eating People,” Philosophy 53 (1978): 465-79.

Dunayer, Joan. “On Speciesist Language.” On the Issues.

Some thoughts on how language influences our cultural communication and understanding, published in a progressive feminist magazine.

Farm Sanctuary: Factory Farming

Farm Sanctuary: Someone, Not Something Project

Great Apes Project

jones, pattrice. (2013) “Intersectionality and Animals.” Vine Sanctuary News.

Moral Standing and Personhood,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Singer, Peter. (2003) “Animal Liberation at 30.” New York Times.

Singer, Peter. (1979) “Equality for Animals?Practical Ethics, Chapter Three.

Spiegel, Marjorie. (1988) The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, London: Heretic Books.

Speciesism. Animal Ethics.

Professor James McWilliams on the naturalistic fallacy

Rohr, Janelle. Opposing Viewpoints: Animal Rights. Opposing Viewpoints Series.

Walker, Alice. (1986) “Am I Blue?Living By The Word. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

Wilson, Scott D. “Animals and Ethics.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Please feel free to share ideas and further resources in the comments on this page!