A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.

Animal ethics

I am doing some work on environmental and specifically animal ethics. Comments appreciated on this first draft on the animal ethics topic.


Over the past 200 years racism and sexism have been discouraged in many societies.  Should ethical consideration now be extended to animals or should considerations of welfare be restricted to our own species? Humans still have a substantial dependence on animals for food, transport, clothing materials and as companions.  Yet animals have little power to control their destinies so, if ethical considerations suggest that animals deserve protection, it requires humans to provide this.

The core reason for including animals in ethical thinking is that animals share many features with humans. Like humans they experience pain and pleasure. If it is wrong to inflict unnecessary pain on a human can be supposed that it is unreasonable to impose the same pain on an animal which experiences the same discomfit.   Moreover, animals also experience happiness.  Pet owners observe dogs and cats experiencing pleasure but this is true more generally in nature. Balcombe (2007, p. 22) writes “Feeling good is a powerful motivator that steers animals towards behaviors that keep them alive and help them reproduce. Contrary to popular myth, life in the wild is not relentlessly harsh; survival and pleasure are mutually compatible”.  If it is desirable to promote happiness among humans then the same might be true for non-human lives. Some claim that attaching what are seen to be human emotions to animals is anthropomorphism – the incorrect ascription to nonhuman animals of human qualities that denies their “animalness”.    It is clearly erroneous to think of the “crafty fox” and the “lazy pig” but equally it is erroneous to deny that the same non-human animals do experience human desire for pleasure and disaffection for pain.

Failure to consider the pain and pleasures animals experience shows that major ethical problems linking humans to both animals and other humans have not been resolved.

In the past animals have been viewed as “lesser beings” than humans which excused their use by humans. There are several reasons for adopting this view.

Some argue that humans are superior because of their capacity for sophisticated thought.   Animals however can think.  Perhaps they do so in different ways from humans and about different things.  An obvious further question is why the capacity for thought should, anyway, be the barometer for moral consideration. After all human thought is only useful in certain contexts.  If birds were making ethical standards perhaps they might regard humans as inferiors because they can’t fly.

There are religious reasons in, for example, the Bible, for alleged human superiority.  In the book of Genesis in the Bible, God gave Adam dominion over the animal world.  This is an inadequate overall explanation given that there are many non-Christian cultures that also use animals for human purposes and who dominate them.  More generally however until recently belief in God (or in many Gods) has been a near universal practice in most human societies and this has made redundant non-religious views of human ethics.  The recent literature on ‘animal rights’ can be understood as part of an attempt to derive a more rational and secular approach to moral reasoning and ethics.

Finally, it is claimed by some Western philosophers that animals lack a “soul” or a spiritual nature.   Humans have self-consciousness and language that means humans are not restricted to live in a world based only on their perceptions – humans have moral, aesthetic and religious experiences. That  humans think defines what they are – as Descartes (1637) stated – “I think therefore I am”.  Descartes however believed that animals could not think so that they could not experience pain or pleasure.  This is an awkward argument to assess given that the existence of the human soul is difficult to establish.  It seems unreasonable anyway to suppose that the claimed absence of a soul implies the inability to experience pain and pleasure.

Animal liberation

The idea of animals having rights is associated with the early development of utilitarianism by philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham (1823, Chapter 17) who opposed racism but also saw, as an extension of this, the consideration of animal interests:

“Other animals, which, on account of their interests having been neglected by the insensibility of the ancient jurists, stand degraded into the class of things. … The day has been, I grieve it to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated … upon the same footing as … animals are still. 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. The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?… The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes… ”

The basic notions of the “animal liberation” school (see e.g. Peter Singer, 1975) stem from this early utilitarianism. Since it is ethically wrong to subject someone to unwanted pain it is also wrong to subject other animals to these same sensations.  Singer is a utilitarian and wishes to limit suffering and to promote pleasure in a world of both humans and animals.  He utilizes a principle of equal consideration of interests that states humans should assign equal weight to the like interests of all of those affected by its actions – to the pains and pleasures that both humans and other nonhuman animals feel.  Equality here does not imply equal rights but simply that pain should not be discounted because it occurs to an animal.

Indeed harming a human will often be more damaging than harming an animal because the lives of wild animals are difficult lives involving pressures to avoid starvation and to avoid predators. Moreover, nonhuman animals probably don’t experience the intensity of suffering that loss of a family member would have on humans. Some bias in favor of avoiding human suffering is still consistent with equal consideration of interests.  It might be difficult to assess the pain that animals do experience by, for example, examining their behavior but that is not an argument for ignoring it.

Singer then argues that if humans ignore pain simply because it is nonhuman animals that are suffering this is an instance of what the British psychologist Richard Ryder referred to as speciesism – discriminating against animals because they are nonhuman (Ryder, 1970).  To Singer this is wrong for the same reason that racism and sexism are wrong. If animals have a lower capacity to experience pain then that is a sound reason to attach a lower weight to the pain inflicted on them. But this lower weight should not be assigned simply because they belong to a nonhuman species even if that species has markedly lower reasoning powers than humans.

This last point can be clarified by considering highly intellectually handicapped humans and the impact of pain and suffering on them.  Even if such handicaps severely restrict the possibilities for rational thought there would be no case for inflicting pain on such people by, for example, laboratory experiments.  Such people will still experience suffering.  If people do believe that animals with lower reasoning powers than humans experience much lower levels of suffering then their attitudes to suffering among severely mentally handicapped people should change.  It is ethically important to be consistent.

Tom Regan (1983) has a more comprehensive basis by which animals should be assigned moral consideration.   Regan argues that, apart from pain and suffering animals also have belief, memory, perception and a sense of the future.  Any being who posses these attributes is a subject-of-a-life who Regan believes posses intrinsic value.  This value cannot be traded-off against possible benefits for humans.  Thus the right must be respected irrespective of the benefits that might accrue to humans if this right were ignored.  Thus hunting, eating or experimentation on animals violate animal rights irrespective of possible gains to humans and should not be permitted.

Animal experimentation

A basic way of thinking about animal ethics issues is to ask whether the pain and suffering humans impose on animals is more than compensated for by benefits that humans thereby accrue.  Experiments on animals cause their suffering but provide knowledge on medical and other procedures that is worthwhile to humans.  Are the knowledge gains “worth” the suffering? Without the experimentation there may be longer waiting periods before medical innovations are introduced which, in turn, increases human suffering.  If this latter suffering is significant enough then it seems difficult to argue, on utilitarian grounds, that incurring animal suffering reduces overall suffering.

Obvious counterarguments are that results from testing on animals may be inconclusive and even directly wrong.  The availability of such testing options moreover reduces the incentives to develop other forms of testing such as the use of donated human tissue that might provide more accurate insights and eliminate the need for animal suffering.

Animals are also used to test non-medical products (cosmetics, food additives, shampoos, cleaning products) to check that they are safe for human use.    The advantages yielded in terms of reduced human suffering seem less obvious than in the case of medical experimentation. The ethical cost of coming up with a new safe brand of lipstick may therefore be very high.

Eating animals

Eating an animal seems to be a serious violation of that animal’s rights.  Indeed ethical vegetarians (as opposed to those seeking to promote human health benefits) do not eat meat for this reason. Some vegetarians eat eggs and drink milk.  The rationale is that such abstinence reduces the amount of unnecessary suffering in the world since there are alternative non-animal-based foods.  Vegans regard all forms of animal protein consumption as unethical and so don’t eat eggs or milk and don’t wear leather or other products based on animal labour. One argument justifying this position is that all such consumptions involve animal servitude without any compensation such as a paycheck to the animal.

Omnivores respond that the suffering is limited since the life of animals in the wild itself involves considerable suffering.  Humane killing of animals raised on farms may reduce the suffering such animals would otherwise experience.  The counterargument is that life on a modern mass production factory farm is hardly likely to be pleasant for the animals concerned even if it does deliver cheap meat.

Factory farming and the way animals are killed for food has become a focus.  Pigs, cattle and chickens are raised under conditions that are cramped and unnatural.  It can be argued that animals slaughtered for food would never have existed had they not been bred for that purpose and that is correct.  Animals gain lives through our intention to eat them. However irrespective of this and of the arguments for vegetarianism there seem to be solid grounds for reducing or eliminating lifelong periods of animal suffering experienced by such animals and painful or fearful deaths.

It can be argued that livestock farming which satisfies these requirements advances the interests of both humans and animals even if humans eat the animals.  The animals then gain access to life that is comfortable and a death that is humane.  Humans gain access to meat.  Promoting vegetarianism then would be counterproductive in the sense that meat-eating will be increasingly restricted to those who do not care about animal suffering.  Scruton (2006, p. 63) has written: “Duty requires us, therefore, to eat our friends’.


In the past hunting was one of the only ways of ensuring food supplies and, even today, starving imposes a substantial degree of suffering. Therefore if a subsistence hunter kills animals to survive the suffering caused to the animals must be compared to the suffering from starvation.  Ethical vegetarians might not oppose hunting in this setting so not filling animals is not a moral absolute.  Hunting when there is no subsistence need for it is poses ethical dilemmas. Sporting hunters create suffering without a compensating reduction in human suffering although some humans do enjoy killing and displaying the carcasses of dead animals that provides a modest compensation.

Sometimes killing animals may prevent the overpopulation and the suffering of animals that may occur when a food supply limit is encountered.  In addition there may be selective culling of certain species – for example exotic introduced species – that are driving native species to extinction.  This is probably not “hunting” as much as a technique for ensuring species survival but it does make the point that absolute prohibitions on killing native animals may not always be justified.

An argument for hunting can be constructed that is analogous to that for eating animals. Namely that the demand for hunting creates incentives for fostering animal life.  For example, the funds generated by hunting licenses can be invested in species conservation.  In addition, in standard renewable resource settings populations of, for example, fish that are close to their carrying capacity in terms of food supply can be made more reproductively efficient in terms of having higher rates of natural regeneration if they are sustainably harvested at rates that ensure lower equilibrium population stock sizes.  Stock size is reduced but the number of animals who gain access to shorter lives are increased.

Conclusions and final remarks

There is widespread agreement in most human societies that the cruel treatment of nonhuman animals is something to be avoided.  Most people – not all – dislike seeing an animal experience pain and most people experience a vicarious pleasure when they see animals enjoying themselves.  Thus most people do assign some basic rights to human life that they seek to have respected.  At the same time most people do not assign equal moral consideration to animals and humans – indeed recognizing differences in the capacity to suffer even the ‘animal liberation’ school of Singer assign lower weight to animals. The practical issue is where the line on the extent of such rights be drawn.  It is easy to oppose factory farming and cruel methods of slaughtering animals although there will be economic costs in enforcing such reforms.

There are arguments for animal testing that rely on demonstrated advantages to humans from animal suffering although the arguments for recreational hunting seem weaker.  The move to limit entirely the use of animals as a source of food protein is more ambiguous provided that the lives of animals raised for slaughter are not miserable and their deaths humane.  Animal life in such a setting is created by the demand for such foods and can potentially be more pleasurable and less painful than the comparable lives of wild animals.

Discussion Questions

1. The Black-eared miner (Manorina melanotis) is an endangered Australian honeyeater bird species that lives in old growth mallee country at the intersection of NSW, Victoria and South Australia.  One of the reasons for a dramatic decline in its population is that it interbreeds with another native honeyeater species the Yellow-throated miner (Manorina flavigula) which is abundant causing genetic swamping that threatens the continued existence of the rare species. Culling of the Yellow-throated miners has therefore been used to help ensure the continued existence of the Black-eared miner. Discuss the ethics of this.

2. Jeff McMahan in the New York Times 2010 asks whether we should arrange for the gradual extinction of all carnivores so that only herbivores remain in order to avoid animal suffering. The idea is that animals suffer an awful existence both at the hands of man and through natural conflicts that result in their ‘agonised suffering and violent death’ – the lion eating the antelope.  Is this a silly argument? (Hint: Would you seek to destroy all birds that eat worms?  Would you go further and wipe out vegetarian humans who inhale insects or devour a suffering carrot crop?)


J. Balcombe, Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, Macmillan, London, 2007.

J. Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 2nd ed, 1823, chapter 17.

S. Clark, Animals and their Moral Standing, Routledge, London, 1997.

R. Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth, Hackett Publishing, 1998 (originally published 1637).

J. McMahan, “The Meat Eaters”, The New York Times, September 19, 2010.  Accessed online at:

C. Panza & A. Potthast, Ethics for Dummies, Wiley Publishing House, NJ, 2010.

T. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1983.

R. Ryder, “Speciesism” unpublished pamphlet, 1970.  See also R. Ryder, “Experiments on Animals,” in S & R. Godlovitch & J. Harris. Animals, Men and Morals. Victor Gollanz, 1971, pp. 41–82.

R. Scruton, A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism, Continuum, London, 2006.

P. Singer, Animal Liberation, New York Review Books, New York, 1975.

3 comments to Animal ethics

  • conrad

    “At the same time most people do not assign equal moral consideration to animals and humans”

    Actually, I think this is debatable if you don’t treat humans and animals as singular categories — For example, many animals in Western countries get better health care than a fair chunk of the world. Indeed, even in terms of food, it seems likely that pets in some places get better nutrition than humans in others. Given this, it suggests that people are willing to prioritize some animals within their vacinity as higher than humans in others. This is also true of animals that people never encounter — if you donated to, say, the Tasmanian Tiger fund, then you are obviously prioritizing them over humans in potentially greater need.

  • hc

    Conrad, I mean by that claim that nonhuman animals are supposed to have lower capacity for suffering – for example they anticipate pain less keenly.

  • Whereas Singer is primarily concerned with improving the treatment of animals and accepts that, in some hypothetical scenarios, individual animals might be used legitimately to further human or nonhuman ends, Regan believes we ought to treat nonhuman animals as we would humans. He applies the strict Kantian ideal (which Kant himself applied only to humans) that they ought never to be sacrificed as a means to an end, and must be treated as ends in themselves.

Leave a Reply