I. Ethical Perspectives on the Treatment and Status of Animals [Addendum]

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Author: Nathan Nobis
Editor: Bruce Jennings
Date: 2014
From: Bioethics(Vol. 1. 4th ed.)
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1600L

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I. Ethical Perspectives on the Treatment and Status of Animals [Addendum]

Ethical concerns about nonhuman animals arise from the recognition that many animals, such as mammals, birds, and vertebrates generally, as well as some invertebrate species, are conscious and sentient, that is, capable of negative and positive sensations. Further mental states attributed to many animals include beliefs, desires, reasoning, memory, expectations for the future, rich and varied negative and positive emotions, social engagement, self-awareness, and a psychological unity that enables identity over time.

A growing body of research in cognitive ethology, the branch of scientific research focused on animal minds, is providing increasingly stronger reasons—beyond common sense, observations, and arguments from analogy to human behavior, physiology, and evolution—to believe that many animals are, like human beings, minded, psychologically complex beings whose lives can go better and worse for them and thus are capable of being harmed (Armstrong and Botzler 2008). Little scientific research supports an opposing view that all animals are mindless, incapable of suffering or experiencing negative emotions, or are otherwise incapable of being harmed or made worse off.

In light of this understanding of animals' cognitive and emotional lives, most contemporary ethicists who address these issues argue that there are some direct moral duties owed to conscious, sentient animals, although they disagree on the extent and seriousness of these obligations. And there are debates about what difference the cognitive sophistication of the species might make to our obligations concerning individuals of that species: for example, might a prima facie obligation to not harm be stronger concerning chimpanzees, less toward chickens, and even less for fish? Answers here depend on our scientific understanding of the mental lives of the species, as well as our moral theorizing.

Moral arguments in favor of either the abolition or major reform of animal-harming industries and practices have been developed out of nearly every major ethical theory or tradition: Aristotelian ethics; virtue ethics; natural law; Christian, Jewish, and other religious ethics; Kantian ethics; Rawlsian or ideal contractarianisms or contractualisms; utilitarianism and other consequenti-alisms; rights-based theories; and more (Taylor 2009; Beauchamp and Frey 2011). Many of these ethicists appeal to our considered moral judgments about human beings, especially those who are vulnerable or mentally challenged, and argue that there is no relevant difference between humans and animals that justifies protecting human beings but not also many animals (Dombrowski 1997).

Much work on animal ethics in the 1970s and 1980s focused on Peter Singer's arguments that animals' interests deserve equal consideration to comparable human interests and that the denial of this is an unjustified prejudice, speciesism, which is analogous to sexism and racism. There was also considerable focus on Tom Regan's arguments that animals possess moral rights to respectful treatment comparable in strength and seriousness to the moral rights possessed by nonrational human beings. These arguments remain controversial, and critics have offered reasons why animals' interests do not deserve equal considerations to similar human interests, and why animals lack moral rights.

One response to these critics, beyond attempts to demonstrate that that their criticisms fail, is that we can Page 253  |  Top of Articleaccept these criticisms but still have adequate theoretical resources to explain why many harmful uses of animals are wrong. Some ethicists have argued that we can accept, either sincerely or for the sake of argument, that speciesism—not giving animals' interests serious weight because they are not of our species—is a justified prejudice, that animals' interests should not be given equal consideration to humans' comparable interests, and that animals lack moral rights, but argue that most, if not all, harmful uses of animals are wrong nevertheless (Garrett 2012). These thinkers appeal to common, less controversial, moral presumptions against unnecessary harms, or harms unnecessary for greater goods, or causing harms to innocents, arguing that these principles apply to many uses of animals and justifying evaluating them as wrong.

Insofar as many critics of the main early contemporary theoretical defenses of animals accept these common presumptions, their critics argue that their positions, contrary to their stated goals to undermine arguments in defense of animals, seem to justify the judgment that many harmful uses of animals are wrong, even if animals lack rights and even if their interests shouldn't be given equal consideration to humans' interests (Garrett 2012). That is, the notion that animal interests should be given some consideration may be a sufficient basis to condemn many uses and much harmful treatment of animals. Some philosophers also argue that theoretical positions that justify harmful animal use typically fail to adequately justify moral protections for vulnerable human beings, citing this as a sufficient reason to reject these theoretical positions (Taylor 2009).

A growing body of discussion and research exists concerning the practical uses and treatment of animals, including the ethics of using animals for food, animal research, biotechnology, education, training, zoos, aquariums, circuses, rodeos, and as companion animals. Discussion and research continue also on the ethics of ecosystem management and the treatment of wildlife, such as hunting and fishing, including dolphin hunting and whaling, and our obligations toward rare and exotic species (Armstrong and Botzler 2008).

Regarding the use of animals for food, it is difficult to find a philosophical ethicist who defends the status quo concerning standard methods of animal agriculture known as “factory farming” and slaughter insofar as such methods cause unnecessary and unjustified pain, suffering, and other harms to animals (Sapontzis 2004; Beauchamp and Frey 2011). Indirect concerns about animals arise from environmental concerns about animal agriculture, because it is a major polluter and producer of greenhouse gases, as well as from antibiotic overuse in animal agriculture, which may lessen or eliminate antibiotics' effectiveness in human medicine (Taylor 2009).

Some critics of factory farming propose an agrarian alternative where animals are raised on a smaller scale in ways that show greater concern for their welfare: these animals experience less pain and perhaps no suffering. These views, however, must explain why killing animals to satisfy nonvital human interests is permissible if killing these animals harms them by depriving them of their valuable futures or the chance to satisfy any of their interests. Some philosophers argue that beings who lack a sense of the future or cannot conceive of themselves in the future or have no explicit interests in or plans for the future are either not harmed by death or lack a right to life, and so killing them painlessly is not wrong (Beauchamp and Frey 2011). These theories are controversial, however, especially concerning their implications for human beings who lack a sense of the future. Their applications to animals, of course, depend on developing scientific understanding of animals' minds: which animal species, if any, have a sense of the future strong enough to grant them a right to life on these theories? Especially relevant here is recent research on fish: although they are arguably conscious, do they have a moment-to-moment existence, or do they have memories and anticipations of the future and thus a sense of themselves over time? (Braithwaithe 2010).

Instead of arguing for the reform of animal agriculture, others argue for its abolition: as we can meet our dietary needs on vegan or vegetarian diets, the serious harms to animals who are raised and killed to be eaten are morally unjustified because these harms are inflicted, critics argue, not for any good reason, but only for our pleasure, convenience, tradition, financial gain, and other reasons insufficient to justify the harms done to animals (Sapontzis 2004).

Concerning animal experimentation and research, greater scientific rigor has been applied to attempting to quantify and measure benefits and harms, allowing evidence-based answers to questions concerning the human benefits from animal research. Systematic reviews to identify the human clinical utility of animal experiments have suggested that data gained from animal experiments have little value to human medicine, and citation analyses show that data from animal studies are not likely to be cited in human medicine (Knight 2011). The common assumption that animal models are reliably predictive of human responses is perhaps not evidence-based. Insofar as common moral defenses of animal experimentation accept this assumption, the relevant science suggests that these arguments are deficient.

Animal researchers have promised to engage the public on the scientific and moral merits of their work and some progress has occurred in these areas. However, activist protest of animal research has often contributed to researchers focusing on evaluating activist tactics instead Page 254  |  Top of Articleof engaging the moral question of why harmful experimentation on animals is morally permissible, when analogous experimentation on human beings, especially vulnerable humans, would be judged as clearly wrong.

Finally, concerns about the ethical treatment of animals have given rise to the growing field of animal law (Sunstein and Nussbaum 2004). Some philosophers have begun to bring issues in animal ethics to political theory. The success of integrating animals into the field of philosophy and ethics has contributed to the development of animal studies, the study of animals through any relevant academic discipline. And there is a growing literature on how to best teach animal issues in many fields and at all levels of education (DeMello 2010).


Armstrong, Susan J., and Richard G. Botzler, eds. 2008. The Animal Ethics Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Beauchamp, Tom L., and R. G. Frey, eds. 2011. The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Braithwaite, Victoria. 2010. Do Fish Feel Pain? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

DeMello, Margo, ed. 2010. Teaching the Animal: Human-Animal Studies across the Disciplines. New York: Lantern Books.

Dombrowski, Daniel A. 1997. Babies and Beasts: The Argument from Marginal Cases. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Garrett, Jeremy R., ed. 2012. The Ethics of Animal Research: Exploring the Controversy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Knight, Andrew. 2011. The Costs and Benefits of Animal Experiments. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sapontzis, Steven, ed. 2004. Food for Thought: The Debate over Eating Meat. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Sunstein, Cass R., and Martha C. Nussbaum, eds. 2004. Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, Angus. 2009. Animals and Ethics: An Overview of the Philosophical Debate. 3rd ed. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

Nathan Nobis
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Morehouse College

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3727400064