Virtue and Difference in Animal Ethics
Philosophical questions concerning animals are so ubiquitous that they virtually go unnoticed. We take their presence and moral status for granted. However, our kinship with and bondage of animals situates us within a very peculiar and problematic relationship. Once recognized, moral questions concerning the treatment of animals present us with a deep dilemma: we view animals as extensions of our families and friends because of how similar they appear to us; and yet we also slaughter them for food, conduct painful experiments on them, and utilize them as simple material resources because of how different they appear. As a consequence, our thinking about animals results in contradictory views and practices. As we proceed in our discussion concerning animal ethics, it is important to keep in mind the following two questions: What is animality, or animal nature? How should we understand and relate to animals? The significance of these questions is not to dictate answers, but to explore and reflect on the relation between humans, animals, and animality.
In general, philosophers tend to denigrate animality as inferior to human nature or disregard it altogether. However, some have reworked the notion of animality and posit that it plays a central role in defining human nature. For those rethinking animal nature, animality refers to dynamic characteristics that unite but also separate animal from human nature: the bodily, instinctual, biological, and determined, to name a few. To some degree, humans share these with animals, but humans express them in different ways. As such, the notion of animality makes us feel uncomfortable because it reveals how proximal humans teeter between natures. It makes us anxious because of the ambiguity, fluidity, and continuity that it presents in characterizing seemingly disparate life forms or species. Animality poses a challenge and threat to our traditional hardline distinctions between human versus animal. Considering the moral status of animals, then, forces us to address this contradiction, discomfort, anxiety, and threat. Philosophically, it forces us to clarify and justify the views we hold regarding animals. Ethically and pragmatically, it forces us to reconsider the nature of our relationship with them in terms of their moral value, status, and rights.
In what follows, I present a very brief historical account of animal ethics and argue why we should extend moral consideration to animals on the basis of re-envisioning the notion of dominion and developing an ethical sensibility to difference (of life forms). But we begin by first outlining some objections against extending moral consideration to animals. Responses to these objections will be interwoven throughout the discussion.
Objection to Extending Moral Consideration to Animals
We can begin with some common objections to extending moral consideration to animals:
- First, the “ontological chain of being” objection restricts moral consideration to animals because humans stand on top of the chain. Moreover, the superiority of human nature merits dominion and mastery of all things.
- Second, the “uniqueness” objection posits that only humans have reason, a soul, and live in a moral community. Animals lack the capacity to understand morality, and thus can never really express rights; they lack the capacity to ever reciprocate a moral duty or responsibility to others; and they anatomically and cognitively lack the means by which to voice their status or rights.
- Third, the “utilitarian” objection states that utilizing animals benefits the greatest amount of people and maximizes pleasure and happiness.
There are other objections, but these provide general grounding for our discussion. We will now look closer at some historical ideas and views that shaped contemporary animal ethics.
The Historical Non-Human Animal and Dominion
The Judeo-Christian religions, including Islam, offer us ambivalent positions towards animals. Certain passages suggest that humans have dominion over all creatures on the planet. Other passages suggest that we serve as stewards of the creatures on earth. The Buddhist and Indian traditions have a more liberal view on animals. Some practitioners of these eastern religions hold more straightforward welfare positions. For example, some Buddhist and Hindus abide by ahimsa, which translates from the Sanskrit as a principle of nonviolence. Ahimsa is extended to non-human animals as well. Although traditional religious views on animals play an important role in our modern disposition towards animals, a full discussion on religion and animal rights is beyond the scope of this project. Nevertheless, it will be acknowledged that the great traditions of the past leave the door open for animal advocacy, but for our purposes we will say that they hold a welfarist position. The welfarist view simply states we should consider animal welfare, but not to the detriment of human interests.
One significant element that develops from the discussion of animal ethics within the context of religion that is of philosophical interest is the notion of dominion. If god gave humans dominion over all the creatures on the planet and the planet itself, what does dominion exactly mean? We further ask, how can we best understand the notion of dominion that developed from religious texts, and situate it in our contemporary milieu? Can we simply assume that dominion categorically refers to human absolute power over all non-human species (to mistreat)? Why should we assume that dominion as the power to rule over others necessarily means domination and exploitation of the non-human? Can dominion, perhaps, reflect a more nuanced state of human agency and responsibility, at least in a modern context?
We can conjecture that dominion as the power to rule over others as a human endowment serves to ascribe moral consideration primarily or solely to humans. It also helps justify the severed relationship between humans and nature, including non-human animals. Our assumed dominion and ownership over all of nature directs us to delimit moral considerations. It helps formulate a fundamental disposition of the endowed species: humans matter because they have agency and interests as unique life forms, and thus possess dominion and rights over others. However, some contemporary research on ethics and dominion aims to reinterpret the human relationship with animals and nature and promotes the extension of moral consideration.
The Ontological Chain of Being
In the western tradition, views on animals can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Notable ancient Greeks who extended moral consideration to animals include Pythagoras and Plutarch. However, it was Aristotle’s ideas that dominated most of western civilizations views on animals. He argued that humans are most aptly defined by their rational social nature. Humans fulfill their natural and optimal function by reasoning and reflecting with other humans. Non-human animals, in contrast, lack the capacity to reason, and therefore are of lesser moral value. For Aristotle, the fact that animals lacked reason disqualified them as being the type of creatures who could possess moral virtues, and thus not apt to share equal moral considerations. However, being a proto-biologist, Aristotle viewed humans and non-human animals as sharing similar natural interests and dispositions, and thus different in degrees. Nevertheless, the power of reason for Aristotle proved to be a sufficient condition for humans to have dominion over animals, and thus, arguably, opened the door for the exploitation of animals for the next two centuries, especially as he influenced canonical philosophers in their views on animals.
The 18th century Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant developed an ethical system using categorical imperatives, which remains influential in moral philosophy. Succinctly stated, the imperatives hold that humans ought to always be treated as ends in themselves and never as means to ends. Kant argued that only those beings who have the capacity to deliberate on their actions meet the minimum criteria for moral consideration. For Kant, non-human animals lack a good will to deliberate on right (and wrong) actions, and thus humans do not have direct moral duties towards them. However, he also thought that we ought to refrain from animal cruelty because those individuals perpetrating such cruel acts would harm their own moral sensibility. Ethical considerations towards animals are indirect considerations. Thus, Kant is typically interpreted as holding a welfarist position concerning animal ethics.
Aristotle used the “ontological chain of being” arguments to arrive at his position. He situated plants, animals, and humans in a hierarchy where humans sit on top as masters, and animals, plants, and inanimate objects linger on lower levels of being, each descending into lesser forms of being. Kant pushed the power of human reason to the level of a self-governing power, which can be interpreted as drawing a further hierarchical divide between humans and animals. We still live under the veil of the Aristotelian and Kantian view on animals. There are notable deserters of the tradition, however.
British 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham found the ontological chain of being argument odious because it presented irrelevant facts regarding the moral consideration and status of animals. He commented that, “… the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Bentham disavows the idea that an ontological hierarchy of being warrants justification to have absolute and unabashed power over animals. His critique represents an early version of utilitarianism utilized to argue for animal welfare. For Bentham, moral consideration is founded on the basis and capacity to have interests as sentient beings. Thus, Bentham argued that animal capacity to suffer meets the minimum criteria for moral consideration. His work paved the way for animal welfare rights and served as intellectual fodder for future animal rights arguments.
Modern Animal Rights: Singer and Regan
The event that publicly announced animal rights as a legitimate issue within contemporary philosophy was Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation text in 1975. Singer viewed himself as a utilitarian, like Bentham. However, Singer presents a direct moral theory concerning animal rights, in contrast to indirect positions, such as welfarist views. He argued for extending moral consideration to animals because, similar to humans, animals have certain significant interests. As such, we ought to view their interests alongside and equal to human interests, which results in humans having direct moral duties towards animals
Singer constructs his arguments based on the “principle of equal consideration of interests” shared by both animals and humans. Singer attempts to demonstrate that a certain property-P endowed to certain beings justifies their right to moral consideration. However, unlike his predecessors, for Singer that certain property-P required to attribute moral consideration, which historically referred to reason, language, consciousness, or a soul, instead refers to having an interest. Animals, like humans, have an interest in fulfilling their basic needs, but also in avoiding suffering, and thus we ought to extend moral consideration because they have positive and negative interests.
For Singer, the interest and capacity for sentient beings to suffer warrants moral consideration. Moreover, suffering is not arbitrary. In fact, Singer tells us, “The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is a pre-requisite for having interests at all.” Thus, the capacity to suffer shared by both humans and animals are to be seen as equal interests (not to suffer) that bestows both equal moral consideration.
Singer further tells us that prejudice based primarily or solely on species type is a form of discrimination, speciesism. Speciesism is unacceptable for the same reasons that racism and sexism are morally unacceptable. They all violate the principle of equality. The principle of equality, Singer tells us, should not be based on factual equality, for example, whether men are factually more intelligent than women, or arbitrary properties, such as superiority of species. Rather, he tells us that, “Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact” that ought to be grounded on having significant interests.
To further his case, Singer presents the “argument from marginal cases”: because certain humans (“marginal cases”) may lack reason or language, such as a comatose person or an infant, their lack of property-P in the form of reason would nullify moral consideration to such “marginal cases”. Most would find this immoral. If the argument from marginal cases is sound, then speciesism becomes even more tenuous. Speciesism, then, like racism and sexism, should be disavowed. In weighing equal significant interests that results in the greatest pleasure or happiness, Singer concludes, our moral thinking requires us to extend moral consideration to animals. Singer’s defense of animal liberation paved the groundwork for subsequent pro-animal rights arguments.
Tom Regan’s 1983 book The Case for Animal Rights offers a non-utilitarian argument for extending moral consideration to animals. Regan uses the “principle of inherent value”, the respect principle, and the subject-of-a-life (SOAL) criterion for his defense. A simplistic formulation of his argument is as follows:
- The inherent value and respect principles ground criteria for moral consideration and rights
- If a being possesses traits of the subject-of-a-life criteria, then we ought to adhere to the inherent value and respect principles regarding their treatment
- Certain non-human animals satisfy the subject-of-a-life criteria
- Therefore, we ought to extend moral consideration and rights to non-human animals
For Regan, the subject-of-a-life criterion can be defined by the following: having beliefs, perception, memory, a sense of the future, sense of one’s own welfare, an emotional life, interests, desires, and goals. If a being satisfies these conditions, then they have inherent value. Unlike Singer, who uses the criteria of property-P as having cumulative interests to warrant moral consideration, Regan argues that each subject-of-a-life is an end in itself. The inherent value of the subject-of-a-life does not depend on utility. If this is the case, then no one particular interest can trump or override the inherent value of beings who are the subject-of-a-life. This focus on the inherent value of individual animals makes Regan an animal rights abolitionist because the conclusion of his arguments challenges the notion that utilizing animals for food, lab experiments, or entertainment for human ends is morally acceptable, even if such use would benefit and/or bring happiness to the majority of people. Regan presents one of the most philosophically deep and compelling cases for bearing moral consideration to animals.
Virtue Ethics, Difference, and Dominion
Both Singer and Regan present us with defenses based on shared similarities between animals and humans. Their defenses give credence to the moral status of beings (as related to having interests or inherent value). However, one problem with the status approach is that it can lead to disavowing subtle life forms, such as interwoven ecosystems. The status approach becomes problematic given the difficulty in deciding who/what deserves moral consideration. As such, the virtue ethics approach provides an alternative because it concerns itself with the question: “How shall I engage with ‘X’?”, without necessarily assigning moral status to ‘X’ beforehand.
Based on Aristotle’s writings, traditional virtue ethics is not so much concerned with universal and categorical rights or greatest beneficial consequences. Rather, it is concerned with acquiring virtuous traits that one develops and perfects with practice over time. This habituation of virtue is aimed at developing settled dispositions that allow one to arrive at a “golden mean” or appropriate actions between excess and deficiency. For example, suppose you find yourself in the midst of a bank robbery. What is the courageous thing to do? It would be foolhardy to view one’s duty to encounter the numerous gunmen while unarmed and possibly perish. But it would be cowardice to shield behind a child or elderly person. The courageous thing to do is what is appropriate at the right time, place, situation, and with the right people.
One of the merits of virtue ethics is that it aims to nurture a “virtuous mind” disposition. Such a mind highlights the complex and strenuous nature of deciding which course of action to take given a variety of options in a situation. To take a seemingly innocuous example, suppose we are walking along a river path that has heaps of ant hills. Somewhere along the path we decide to pollute the river and destroy the ants simply because we can. According to the status approach, the acts are permissible because the river and ant hills are devoid of moral status and, thus, moral consideration. But could we have related to them in other ways? This hypothetical case addresses the subtle nature of attuning and developing one’s moral sensibility to each new situation with which one is presented. It is posited here that each new situation carries the possibility for developing and nurturing a habituation of the virtues.
The virtue of benevolence or, in contemporary parlance, being socially conscious, seems most adequate to address the nature of moral consideration. Such a virtue is characterized by promoting the good, becoming serviceable to others, or the concern for social justice. In the context of animal ethics, we are interested in the virtue of benevolence based not only on similarity or status, but on the difference that each new encounter with life forms or species offers. We engage with non-human life forms in a very different manner than we engage with other humans, so the question arises of how to engage with such difference. The question pushes our moral horizon to reflect on the moral status of life forms or species who are different from what we know to be human, and who require a nuanced type of engagement with. It is in our daily engagement with such radical difference that we find a deeper meaning of morality. In fact, ecosystems, animals and vulnerable humans present us with a sense of difference that not only relates to moral consideration and benevolence, but to reconsidering our dominion over them. It is precisely because their difference offers us dominion over them that our moral consideration ought to be extended to them. Here we see moral consideration and benevolence conjoined by the notion of difference, as much as moral consideration and benevolence are united by the notion of sameness.
The virtue of benevolence, seen within contemporary social dynamics, helps us reinterpret the notion of dominion. Dominion, as human subjugation over others, undergoes a relational transformation. Dominion, no longer viewed as a despotic endowment, is now seen as an ethical call and question from the other, the animal, the different, the non-human. The process of moral transformation turns our early, narrow human-centered focus into a wider field of moral consideration open to diverse and different life forms. In this regard, humans could not only live with but flourish alongside non-human animals.
I have attempted to provide a very concise historical account of animal ethics, but in no way does this discussion account for the numerous positions or debates encompassing it. I started by surveying religious views and ancient and modern philosophical accounts on animal ethics. I then highlighted Singer’s and Regan’s contemporary sameness positions. Lastly, I presented a virtue ethics position based on the virtue of benevolence and the notion of difference. The historical moral sublimation of dominion was present throughout. The ultimate thrust of this discussion is for us to engage with (animal) radical difference and meet it with a virtuous mind that bestows our benevolence onto them. As such, our understanding of dominion over life transcends traditional limitations.
For Review and Discussion:
- What are the traditional reasons for and against extending rights to animals? Are these good reasons?
- Why do you think we care for certain types of animals, but eat others?
- Do you think your animals (animals you own or keep as pets) deserve moral consideration?
Notes and Additional Readings
- Jacques Derrida. The Animal That Therefore I am. Translated by David Wills. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. ↵
- The notion of animality has an ancient history, but here we will simply say that it refers to certain characteristics shared to some degree by humans and animals: the non-rational, bodily, instinctual, amoral, uncivil. ↵
- Matthew Scully. Dominion: the Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. ↵
- Andrew Linzey. Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology, and Practical Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ↵
- Aristotle. De Anima. Translated by Mark Shiffman. Indiana: Focus Publishing, 2011. ↵
- Immanuel Kant. Basic Writings of Kant. Edited by Allen W. Wood. New York: The Modern Library, 2001. ↵
- Jeremy Bentham. The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Edited by J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ↵
- Peter Singer. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. New York: The New York Review of Book, 1990. ↵
- Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd Edition. Translated by Terence Irwin. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2009. ↵
- Matthew Calarco. Thinking Through Animals: Identity, Difference, Indistinction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015 ↵
- Emmanuel Levinas. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Dusquesne University Press, 1969. ↵