Animals and ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L004-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 03, 2022, from

1. The traditional view

In some Eastern systems of thought, animals are accorded great respect. The Jains of India hold that all life is sacred, drawing no sharp distinction between human and nonhuman life. They are therefore vegetarians, as are Buddhists, whose sacred writings forbid all needless killing. In the West, however, it was traditionally believed that animals were made for human use. This idea, familiar from the Old Testament book of Genesis and elaborated by a long line of Jewish and Christian thinkers, also formed part of Aristotle’s worldview. Aristotle taught that ‘nature does everything for a purpose’, and so, just as plants exist to provide food for animals, animals exist to provide food and other ‘aids in life’ for humans (see Regan and Singer (eds) 1989).

This was cosmology with a moral point. Aquinas, who emphasized that it was God himself who provided the animals for human use, made the point explicit: ‘Therefore,’ he said, ‘it is not wrong for man to make use of them, by killing or in any other way whatever’ (Summa contra gentiles). Are there, then, no limits on how animals may be treated? One might think we have a duty to be kind to them out of simple charity. But Aquinas insisted that this is not so. ‘Charity,’ he said, ‘does not extend to irrational creatures.’

There was, however, one way in which animals could gain a degree of protection. They might be the incidental beneficiaries of obligations owed to humans. If someone has promised to look after your dog, he is obliged to care for it. But the obligation is owed to you, not to the dog. There might even be a general duty not to torment animals, because, as Kant put it, ‘He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men’ (1780–81: 240). But once again, the point was to protect the men, not the animals. (This has sometimes been called the ‘indirect duty view’ – that we can have duties to animals, but only indirect ones.)

This view might seem extreme in its near total disregard for nonhumans. Nevertheless, the idea that animals are essentially resources for human use was accepted by almost every important thinker in the Western tradition – including such figures as St Francis, who is popularly but wrongly believed to have advocated a more charitable stance. For this view to be defensible, however, there must be some difference between humans and other animals that would explain why humans have a privileged moral status. Traditional thought cited two such differences. For Aristotle, the difference was that humans alone are rational. Religious figures added that man alone was made in the image of God. These explanations seemed sufficient until 1859, when Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) transformed our understanding of man’s relation to the rest of nature (see Darwin, C.).

Citing this article:
Rachels, James. 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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