Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Animal Liberation: ethical approaches

Leave a comment

I’m now just a week away from my viva, so I picked my reading for today strategically and went for Alan Carter’s entry on Animals in the Routledge Companion to Ethics.

Carter has written some really interesting stuff – I love his paper on radical disobedience for example, but he starts – this chapter with the puzzling claim that the history of Western thought has largely disregarded the interests of non-human animals. I’ve mentioned the works of Porphyry in previous posts, but he was not alone – the ancient Greeks had plenty to say about non-human animals, and this has continued through to today. I’m not sure it’s fair to call Porphyry, Plutarch, Pythagoras, Bentham, Montaigne, Shopenhauer, Mill, Spira, Salt, Schweitzer, Nozick, Brophy, Singer, Regan, Midgley, Korsgaard, Hills, Nussbaum and so on, ‘notable exceptions’ as Carter does. However, it is fair to say that philosophical consideration of the moral status of non-human animals has really taken off since Peter Singer published Animal Liberation in the 1970s.

The big question asked in this chapter is why do we assume that it is morally permissible to treat non-human animals in a completely different way than we do humans? In some ways, the answer seems obvious – animals can’t act morally; they cannot restrain their desires, keep promises, make agreements, control their violent urges and so forth. They are not rational. However, it seems very strange to think that just because something can’t act morally we are entitled to farm and eat it. After all, not all humans are moral agents, and we don’t think it’s OK to eat them on account of their irrationality. It’s hard, as Carter points out, to discover a morally relevant difference between humans and other animals that includes all humans and excludes all animals, and even if we can find such a difference it doesn’t follow that such a difference licences free-reign. In other words, even if we could establish that all humans are morally superior to all animals, it doesn’t follow from this we can do what we like to those animals.

However, as Carter points out, we do need to draw some lines – we don’t think it immoral to kick a stone, or break a stick – so what capacity should we ground moral standing in? Utilitarians, from Bentham through to Singer have traditionally argued that the capacity to experience pain and feel pleasure, or to suffer mark out whether a being is worthy of moral consideration. Those beings that can suffer should have their interests considered equally and impartially when moral decisions are to be taken.

Utilitarians generally measure goodness by how much happiness is produced in the world, which permits (in principle) pretty much any action so long as that action produces a greater amount of happiness overall. This is where deontolgical (or rule-based) ethics comes in. These forms of ethical code claim that there are constraints on what can be done to individuals in the name of the greater good – individuals are not to be sacrificed to benefit others. We often see these rules expressed as rights. My own approach to animal ethics is to argue that the well-being of animals places constraints upon our treatment of them in this way, constraints that forbid us from eating them, experimenting upon them, or otherwise using them as the means to our own ends. As such, my position is similar to that of Tom Regan, who Carter uses to illustrate the deontological approach to animal ethics.

If animals are worthy of moral concern, then the ethical questions are: what may we permissibly do to them and, what do we do when our interests conflict. To the first question I answer ‘nothing that treats them as a mere means to our ends’, and the latter question is answered by applying familiar theoretical approaches such as self-defence theory, theories of justice, ethics of moderate partiality and so forth.

Carter’s final section deals with criticisms of the two approaches by appeals to the value of relationships (at the familial and broader political and social levels). Under this approach humans count because they can form relations with one another in ways that animals cannot. Not only does this approach look question-begging, but again it doesn’t really address the complaint that not all humans can form the sorts of meaningful relationship that is set as the bar for moral considerability (nor is it clear that all animals cannot – great apes and dolphins may well be able to).

Another argument against animal liberation is to make use of the ‘natural kinds’ argument I discussed in my post on gay marriage and claim humans are of a special kind of being that ordinarily has capacities that make one worthy of moral consideration. Now I’ve never understood how this argument functions – it looks like a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it to me. On the one hand we want to say that all humans are worthy of consideration because they are the sorts of beings that ordinarily have certain capacities – like language use or rationality – and, on the other we want to treat those humans that don’t have rationality differently by giving them different rights (we don’t allow them to vote, or drive, or get married and have children for example). Linking moral status to characteristics that an individual being doesn’t in fact possess just looks like transcendental mumbo jumbo to me – you might as well posit a soul and link it to that.

Carter goes on to discuss the Kantian idea that duties to animals are indirect, i.e. that they are really duties to other humans (if we are cruel to animals it’s likely we’ll end up being cruel to humans), and Carruthers’ contention that animals may not be able to suffer. He also covers Frey’s arguments that animals lack desires (because desires require conventional language capacity) and so do not have morally relevant interests. None of these approaches are very convincing – although they probably deserve a further post in the future at least.

Carter’s chapter finishes with a very brief review of more recent theorising – including in contractualist political theory. I’m left impressed by the surprising amount he’d managed to cover in such a short amount of space and left prompted to read more of his work in the future.

I’m now 17 readings into my structured reading project and I’m really enjoying it, and, as an unexpected side effect, it seems to have spurred me to read more in general. Reading appears to provoke more reading.



Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s