Animals and ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L004-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 16, 2022, from

2. Challenges to the traditional view

Darwin demonstrated that humans are not ‘set apart’ from other animals, but are related to them by evolutionary descent (see Evolution, theory of). It is no accident that we bear such a startling resemblance to the apes. Our bones and muscles are but modified versions of the ape’s bones and muscles – they are similar because we inherited them from the same ancestors. The same is true of our rational faculties. Man is not the rational animal, for other animals also possess a degree of rationality. How could it be otherwise, when our brains developed from a common source? Darwin went so far as to declare, ‘There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties’ (1859: 35). Such differences as do exist, he said, are matters of degree, not kind.

Today it is widely accepted that Darwin was right, at least in the main outlines of his view, and this poses an obvious ethical dilemma: if humans are similar in so many ways to other animals, and humans merit moral protection, then why should other animals not merit protection too? As Asa Gray, Darwin’s friend in America, put it, ‘Human beings may be more humane when they realize that, as their dependent associates live a life in which man has a share, so they have rights which man is bound to respect’ (1880: 54). Darwin himself regarded cruelty to animals, along with slavery, as one of the two great human moral failings.

Another nineteenth-century development also cast doubt on the traditional exclusion of animals from the range of moral concern. The utilitarians, led by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, argued that morality is fundamentally a matter of seeking to promote happiness and prevent suffering (see Utilitarianism). But Bentham saw no reason to limit moral concern to human suffering. In fact, he suggested that disregard for animals was a form of discrimination analogous to racism:

The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire the rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the 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…. The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

(1789: 311; original emphasis)

It must be noted, however, that for most of Western history the moral status of animals did not seem to be much of an issue, and philosophers did not write very extensively about it (Bentham’s discussion, for example, is confined to a footnote). The subject began to be widely discussed among philosophers only after the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation in 1975.

Citing this article:
Rachels, James. Challenges to the traditional view. Animals and ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L004-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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