Animals and ethics

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

3. The contemporary debate

One of the striking things about the debate concerning animals is that it is possible to reach radical ethical conclusions by invoking only the most common moral principles. The idea that it is wrong to cause suffering, unless there is a sufficient justification, is one of the most basic moral principles, shared by virtually everyone. Yet the consistent application of this principle seems to lead straight to vegetarianism or at least to the avoidance of factory-farmed meat. The argument is disarmingly simple. In modern factory farms, animals who are raised and slaughtered for food suffer considerable pain. Since we could easily nourish ourselves without eating them, our only reason for eating them seems to be our enjoyment of how they taste. So, unless one thinks our gustatory pleasure is a sufficient justification for causing torment, the obvious conclusion is that we are wrong to produce and consume such products.

Other arguments appeal to less commonplace notions. The word ‘speciesism’ was coined by Richard Ryder, a British psychologist who ceased experimenting on animals after becoming convinced it was immoral, and popularized by Singer in Animal Liberation. Speciesism is said to be analogous to racism. Just as racists unjustifiably give greater weight to the interests of the members of their own race, speciesists unjustifiably give greater weight to the interests of the members of their own species (see Discrimination §1).

Consider, for example, the very different standards we have for using humans and nonhumans in laboratory research. Why do we think it permissible to perform a painful and destructive experiment on, say, a rhesus monkey, when we would not perform the same experiment on a human? Someone might suggest that, say, humans are more intelligent than monkeys, or that their social relationships are more complex. But consider mentally retarded persons whose cognitive and social capacities are no greater than those of the animal. Would it be permissible to perform the same experiment on them? Many people think that, simply because they are human, it would not. This is speciesism laid bare: there is no difference between the human and the nonhuman in their abilities to think, feel or suffer, and yet the human’s welfare is counted for more.

This line of thought suggests that animals may be treated differently from humans when, and only when, there are morally relevant differences between them. It may be permissible to admit humans, but not other animals, to universities, because humans can read and other animals cannot. But in cases where there are no relevant differences, they must be treated alike. This is the sense in which humans and nonhumans can be said to be morally ‘equal’: the bare fact that one is human never itself counts for anything, just as the bare fact that one has one skin colour or another never itself counts for anything. So we may not treat an animal in any way in which we would not be willing to treat a human with the same intellectual and emotional capacities.

Such arguments have, of course, provoked lively opposition. Many philosophers find it difficult to believe that mere animals could have such powerful claims on us. Morality, they say, is fundamentally a human institution established to protect human rights and human interests (see Morality and ethics). Contractarianism, which has emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century as the principal rival to utilitarianism, makes this point most clearly. According to this view, morality rests on agreements of mutual benefit. Morality arises within a community when each person agrees to ‘play the social game’, respecting other people’s rights and interests, provided others will do so as well. This agreement makes social living possible, and everyone benefits from it (see Contractarianism in ethics and political philosophy). But animals are unable to participate in such agreements, so they do not come within the sphere of moral protection.

In addition to initiating a philosophical debate, Peter Singer’s book is perhaps the most conspicuous example of a philosophical work triggering a social movement. The animal rights movement, with its principled opposition to such practices as factory farming, the use of animals in commercial and scientific research, and the fur trade, has become a familiar part of contemporary life. Rarely, if ever, have philosophical thinking and social activism been linked so closely.

Citing this article:
Rachels, James. The contemporary debate. 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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