Chapter 2


Animals in Our Ethics




What Place Do Other Animals Find in Our Ethics?


eth·ics  1.a. A set of principles of right conduct. b. A theory or a system of moral values. 2. The study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy.[1]


On the one hand, ethics are the rules that philosophers and lawmakers have formulated to govern human society and maintain ‘order.’  Each of us is also capable, however, of a deeper and more personal level of ethics, which Schweitzer would call “an inward, spiritual relation to the world.”[2]  These personal ethics are the striving within each individual to live and interact with the world in accordance with justice.


At the heart of ethics, I believe, is a fundamental struggle between two forces: egoism and altruism.  Egoism is the inward force of self-protection, of guarding one’s own interests.  Altruism is the outward force of treating others as you would wish to be treated, regardless of the impact on yourself.  There is a conflict, as Schweitzer has said, “between inward compulsion to self-sacrifice, and the necessary upholding of the ego.”[3]  Some ethical systems are based on egoistic principles, whereas others involve altruism in varying degrees.  Egoism, in its strictest form, limits the scope of justice to “rational beings” capable of contributing to the maintenance of justice, and thereby excludes non-human animals.  The conflict between the forces of egoism and altruism will come up at various points in this chapter.


I will investigate the way in which the supposed differences between humans and other animals have been used to exclude animals from our ethical concern.  Historically, as philosophers have worked to devise theoretical systems to guide human action, their primary focus has been the relationship between man and man, or if they are theosophers, between man and God.  The question of how animals other than humans fit into our ethical systems has typically been avoided, primarily because other animals have been imagined as “significantly different from, and inferior to, humans.”[4]  Animals have been considered to be no more than ‘property,’ and treated as such by ethics – and by us.


The anthropocentric[5] status-quo view of non-human animals has been denounced by various figures throughout history, but it has not been until quite recently that a radical revision of the moral status of animals has become part of mainstream philosophical debate.  More has been written in the last few decades about the ethics of our treatment of other animals than in the two thousand years prior to that.[6]


Mainstream philosophers of the past, when dealing with the question of the place that other animals find in our ethics, have sometimes spoken of our “indirect duties” towards animals.  Kant, for example, held that we are to treat other “rational beings,” i.e. humans, as “ends in themselves,”[7] as having intrinsic value.  Animals, however, not being “rational,” can be owed no direct duties.  “Our duties towards animals”, says Kant, “are merely indirect duties to mankind […] for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.”[8]


I believe that we do have direct duties towards other animals – rather than only duties involving animals, which is what Kant and many others have contended.  The lives of conscious animals – those animals which are capable of experiencing the world around them – have value in and of themselves.  Modern philosophy is beginning to acknowledge this, but much of humanity’s dealings with other animals, as I show in the next chapter about factory farming, still treats non-human animals as unfeeling objects, with no inherent value.



The Problem of “Rational” Ethics


Ultimately, an unbiased observer of human behavior must conclude that most action is not shaped by theory, but rather theories are shaped to conform to actions we have no intention of changing.[9]


When, in the course of my research, I began to sift through the plethora of technical books that have been written about the ethical treatment of animals, I was overwhelmed.  It was the first time that I really experienced how arbitrary and excessively abstract Western philosophy has become.  In the words of Albert Schweitzer: “Complicated and laborious are the roads along which ethical thought, which has mistaken its way and taken too high a flight, must be brought back.”[10]  After days of poring over book upon book of abstract and somewhat meaningless theories, I became irritated, and lost interest in the rigour and logic of Western philosophy.[11]


There cannot be an absolute or impartial basis for ethics.  We twist and direct our logical arguments so as to lead them to the conclusions that we desire, and then claim that our position has been rationally substantiated, even though the flow of our arguments is actually quite arbitrary.  For example, my interest in the ethical theories surrounding our treatment of animals arises out of my wish to lessen the suffering and oppression that I perceive us to be causing to animals.  Thus, any arguments I make will be focused towards demonstrating the validity of my wish, and thus may not be convincing to someone who does not hold the same wish, unless I reformulate my arguments to encompass a larger wish that we both hold in common.


For these reasons, I have chosen not to examine or develop complex ethical theories in this chapter.  Instead, I explore the ways in which animals have been excluded from the realm of our ethical concern, and look at how we can broaden our ethical horizons to encompass other animals.



Expanding the Circle


The image of an expanding circle of ethical concern can be useful when discussing the scope of ethics.  This circle  has been called the “moral community”, the “sphere of moral inclusion”, or the “circle of compassion.”  It is useful as an image because it does not depend on any particular system of ethics.  Instead it can be applied within the context of any ethical system, serving to define what beings fall within the scope of ethical concern, and what beings and things do not.


This chapter will be examining various ways in which animals have been excluded from the sphere of moral concern.  The essential problem with ethics that concern animals is that throughout history ethics has typically ignored animals altogether, or classified them as objects with no moral importance, which Mary Midgley calls “absolute dismissal.”


Expanding the circle to include other sentient animals is the next step in humanity’s ethical progression, through which arbitrary discrimination is eliminated as it becomes recognized.  Including other animals in the moral community does not weaken humanity’s claims to justice; in fact, it strengthens these claims in various ways.  By extending our criterion of the requirements for having a claim to justice, we thereby ensure that these criterion will include all of humanity.  Also, it “reinforces the notion that arbitrary demarcations, including those that justify racism, sexism, and other ‘isms,’ are inappropriate.”[12]  As Ingrid Newkirk once said in a speech: “If you can come to respect a fish, then you can probably do pretty well with your next-door neighbor.”[13]



Aristotle: Animals are not Political


Aristotle (384-322 BCE) considered man to be “naturally a political animal,” and any being that is “unfit for society,” he says, “must be either inferior or superior to man…. as a beast or a god.”[14]  For Aristotle, animals, being lower than humans on his hierarchy of beings and not being capable of engaging in politics, are inferior and therefore subservient to humanity.


Unfortunately for anyone wishing to use Aristotle to defend the exploitation of animals, however, Aristotle’s hierarchy of beings, in diminishing order of merit and justified dominance, reads: Greek man, Greek woman, slave/barbarian, and at the bottom of the hierarchy, non-human animals.[15]  Thus, tragically, Aristotle’s moral hierarchy is no longer defensible today, due to his blatant sexism and racism :


[F]or tame animals are naturally better than wild ones, and it is advantageous that both should be under subjection to man; for this is productive of their common safety: so is it with the male and the female; the one is superior, the one inferior; the one governs, the other is governed… Since then some men are slaves by nature, and others are freemen, it is clear that where slavery is advantageous to any one, then it is just to make him a slave.[16]



St. Thomas Aquinas


St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), who is said to be “the most important figure in Scholastic philosophy and one of the leading Roman Catholic theologians,”[17] has written an extensive treaty intending to demonstrate, as the treaty is named, “That Rational Creatures are Governed for Their Own Sake, and Other Creatures as Directed to Them.”[18]  Throughout the document, Aquinas assumes that “rationality” is a uniquely human trait, although he does not substantiate this claim.  Non-human animals, not being rational, he argues, do not exist for their own sake but for the sake of serving “rational” or “intellectual” creatures; namely, for the sake of man.  “Of all the parts of the universe,” he writes, “intellectual creatures hold the highest place, because they approach nearest to the divine likeness…the divine providence provides for the intellectual nature for its own sake, and for all others for its sake.”  Aquinas was explicit about what he meant by this principle on a practical level:


Hereby is refuted the error of those who said it is sinful for a man to kill brute animals; for by the divine providence they are intended for man’s use according to the order of nature.  Hence it is not wrong for man to make use of them, either by killing or in any other way whatever.[19]


Aquinas, drawing heavily on Aristotelian philosophy, comes to a similar conclusion as Aristotle: that animals cannot be a part of our society, and we therefore may do with them as we will.  It seems that Aquinas, however, unlike his predecessor Aristotle, was wise enough not to include a defence of slavery.



Speech as a Moral Criterion


In the previous chapter we looked at the way in which the capacity for language has been used to separate humans from other animals.  It became clear that there is no categorical divide between human language and many of the forms of animal communication.  But is the possession of speech a morally relevant characteristic, one that would be a deciding factor in determining whether or not a being falls within the sphere of ethical concern?  There are multiple steps involved in answering this question.


Firstly, what is it about the possession of speech that could make it morally relevant?  Speech could be morally relevant, in itself, because of the social capacities with which it endows the individual, such as an ability to make agreements, or the capacity for resolving disputes verbally.  Speech could also be considered morally relevant as a result of the cognitive capacities that have been associated with it, such as consciousness or rationality, which themselves are considered to be morally relevant.


The factors mentioned above, however, are no more than superficial rationalizations.  A more plausible reason for animals’ apparent lack of speech to have an impact on our treatment of them is captured succinctly by the words of Voltaire:


They want but speech; if they had it, should we dare to kill and eat them; should we dare to commit these fratricides?  Where is the barbarian who would roast a lamb, if it conjured him by an affecting speech not to become at once an assassin and a cannibal?[20]



The Ability to Suffer as a Moral Criterion


Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was a child prodigy, “reading serious treatises at the age of three, playing the violin at age five, and studying Latin and French at age six.”[21]  He was the founder of utilitarianism, in which an action is considered right if it generates the maximum amount of happiness, or pleasure, for the maximum number of people.  This principle removes all emphasis on “rationality” or “autonomy” as moral criterion, instead making pleasure and pain the relevant characteristics.  In his treatise on utilitarianism, Bentham observed that this principle would apply equally well to animals:


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… It may come one day to be recognized, that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reason 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 of discourse?  But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old.  But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?[22]


I find that Bentham’s approach makes sense.  When we are making a decision involving the well-being of another person, the question we ask ourselves is “Will this hurt him or her?” rather than “How intelligent and rational is he or she?”  In the late 18th century, however, Bentham’s idea was quite revolutionary.  Today, the capacity for pain and pleasure– known as ‘sentience’– has been central to the discussion of how animals fit into our ethics.



Consciousness as a Moral Criterion


I consider consciousness to be a morally critical characteristic.  An unconscious being cannot feel pain—or, indeed, feel anything at all.  Nothing can matter to an unconscious being, since it has no awareness of anything.  For these reasons, it would not make sense to speak of “harming” a being of this sort, any more than it would make sense to speak of harming a stone or a bicycle.


However, it is often extremely difficult, or impossible, to determine whether or not a being is conscious, because consciousness is so subjective an experience.  It is clear also that there are varying levels of consciousness – even within  our species, or within a single individual – and thus consciousness cannot easily be used as a criterion for moral consideration.



Rationality as a Moral Criterion


Ethical doctrines such as contractarianism and egoistic rationalism restrict the moral community to beings that are able to contribute to the maintenance of order and justice.  Contractarianism, in a simplified form, imagines a hypothetical contract that would be agreed to by rational beings living together in a society.  Since animals are not considered capable of entering into such a contractual agreement, they  are excluded from being owed justice within this sort of ethical system.[23]


While I would like to see other animals treated in accordance with justice, I agree that it would not be desirable to expect them to act by our concepts of justice.  Attempts to make animals accountable under the rule of our laws has had strange effects:


Historically, animals have occupied an interesting, if ofttimes unenviable, position within and before the law.  From the ancient Greeks, through the Middle Ages, even into the twentieth century; from the East and the West; in a word, across both cultural and temporal boundaries, the legal landscape is dotted with records of the criminal prosecution of animals.  Those animals brought to trial, before ecclesiastical and civil authorities, include but are not limited to beetles, bulls, cows, dogs, dolphins, field mice, horses, moles, rats, sheep, slugs, swine, termites, wolves, and worms.  The charges brought against these animals varied from unlawful occupancy to murder, and the modes of punishment varied as well; the Russian courts, for example, displaying a not untypical inclination to banish animals (for example, toward the end of the seventeenth century a he-goat was exiled to Siberia) while some courts, especially those in Europe in the Middle Ages, went so far as to execute animals.[24]



Reversing the Burden of Proof


By whatever miracle it was that animal life came into being upon the earth—whether it be divine or natural—I see no reason why humans should have any more right to a share in the world than any other creatures, who enjoy life as we do, strive for existence, and experience the world.[25]


Since today we have such a convincing body of evidence to support the fact that animals share with us our basic faculties, in the very least the qualities of sentience and awareness, the burden of ethical proof should now be shifted onto those who choose to continue to exploit and harm animals, to justify their attitudes and their actions.



Conclusion to Chapter Two: Ethics


“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion

  to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Albert Einstein


In this chapter we looked at what ethics are, and how animals fit into human ethics.  We explored the concept of the ‘expanding circle,’ and looked at the various ways in which animals have traditionally been excluded from this circle.  Humanity’s next task is to expand the circle so as to include its fellow creatures, recognizing that we owe to them justice and compassion.


Ethics has had a long and elaborate biography, and rests upon a solid foundation of tradition.  Anyone wishing to make fundamental changes to the course of ethical development must first grapple with the force of history.  This can truly be a dangerous task, as Albert Schweitzer recognized:


One day, years before, when [Schweitzer] was sitting on the banks of the Rhine reading from a huge book of history, a little insect fluttered in between the pages and was almost crushed there.  He spared the insect’s life, saying to himself: “I am like that poor little midge, in danger of being crushed under the weight of history.”[26]


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[1] American Heritage Dictionary, 1994.

[2] Albert Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization II: Civilization and Ethics, Great Britain: Unwin Brothers Limited, 1946. p. 240

[3] Ibid., p. 250.  Schweitzer holds that trying to define the precise degree to which the interests of other lives may be sacrificed to uphold one’s own life results in “experimental, relative ethics” and an “obscuration of the conception of the ethical.”  He says that it must be a decision made by each individual at every moment.

[4] Angus Taylor, Magpies, Monkeys, and Morals: What Philosophers Say about Animal Liberation, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1999. p. 11

[5] “1. Regarding human beings as the central element of the universe.  2. Interpreting reality exclusively in terms of human values and experience.”  American Heritage Dictionary, 1994.

[6] ed. Paul A.B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey, Political Theory and Animal Rights, London: Pluto Press, 1990. p. xi

[7] As quoted in The Case For Animal Rights (Regan, Tom, USA: University of California Press, 1983. p. 175)

[8] Ibid., pp. 177-178

[9] Marjorie Spiegel, The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, New York: Mirror Books, 1996.  p. 90

[10] Albert Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization II: Civilization and Ethics, Great Britain: Unwin Brothers Limited, 1946. p. 240

[11] At that point I came across Albert Schweitzer’s writings on “Reverence for Life,” with which I quickly became infatuated.  See ibid.

[12] Helena Silverstein, Unleashing Rights: Law, Meaning, and the Animal Rights Movement, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1996.  p. 51

[13] From a speech that Ingrid Newkirk, the co-founder and president of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), presented on March 4, 2000.

[14] Aristotle, Politics, 1252b-3b, reprinted in Political Theory and Animal Rights (ed. Paul A.B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey, London: Pluto Press, 1990)  pp. 6-7

[15] ed. Harlan B. Miller & William H. Williams, Ethics and Animals, N.J.: Humana Press, 1983.  p. 2

[16] Aristotle, Politics, 1254b2-6b12, reprinted in Political Theory and Animal Rights (ed. Paul A.B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey, London: Pluto Press, 1990)  pp. 56-57

[17] Microsoft Encarta ‘95

[18] Reprinted in Political Theory and Animal Rights (ed. Paul A.B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey, London: Pluto Press, 1990)  pp. 7-12

[19] Ibid., p. 10.

[20] trans. William F. Fleming, The Works of Voltaire, Ohio: The Werner Company, 1904.

[21] Microsoft Encarta ‘95

[22] Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Chapter XVII, Section 1.

[23] John Rawls, a contractarian, in his A Theory of Justice (Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 512, says about animals: “They are outside the scope of the theory of justice, and it does not seem possible to extend the contract doctrine so as to include them in a natural way.”  Rawls does recognize that we need some other way of determining our proper relationship with other animals, but says that it would have to depend on “a theory of the natural order and our place in it.”

[24] Regan, Tom, All That Dwell Therein: Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics, USA: University of California Press, 1982.  p. 150

[25] From The Notebooks of Jamie Alexandre, North Vancouver, BC: Eagle Publications, 1999.

[26] ed. Charles R. Joy, The Animal World of Albert Schweitzer: Jungle Insights into Reverence for Life, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1950.  pp. 32-33


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