Animal Ethics Theory and Philosophy

The philosophy of ethics is generally concerned with extracting the ethical principles that we use to make moral decisions and judgments, examining and extending them to see how well they hold, and proposing alternative ones when flaws are inevitably found.


The ethical principles that are usually used to justify the way we interact with animals often don’t hold up under scrutiny. When they are carefully examined, they usually simply place humans at a higher importance than animals, based solely on the fact that they are human. Richard D. Ryder coined the term ‘speciesism’ as an analog to racism, sexism, etc.1 In his essay ‘Experiments on Animals’ he wrote:

In as much as both “race” and “species” are vague terms used in the classification of living creatures according, largely, to physical appearance, an analogy can be made between them. Discrimination on grounds of race, although most universally condoned two centuries ago, is now widely condemned. Similarly, it may come to pass that enlightened minds may one day abhor “speciesism” as much as they now detest “racism.” The illogicality in both forms of prejudice is of an identical sort. If it is accepted as morally wrong to deliberately inflict suffering upon innocent human creatures, then it is only logical to also regard it as wrong to inflict suffering on innocent individuals of other species. … The time has come to act upon this logic.2

Most justifications for the human use and abuse of animals are some variation of the argument that humans possess more and better cognitive capabilities than other animals, and therefore are given greater moral value. This claim by itself is debatable, but let’s assume it is true. Under that criterion, a severely mentally disabled human’s welfare should be given lesser value than a mentally healthy human’s. This is clearly not the case in the ethical code of modern society. It is not ethically permissible to run painful scientific experiments on severely mentally disabled people, to own them, to keep them confined in spaces so small that they cannot move, to eat them, to wear their skin, to watch them from behind glass, or to kill them when there is not enough space to house them. Furthermore, most humans would strongly object to a hyper-intelligent alien species doing these things to us. Yet all of them are done to animals on a regular basis. In fact, animals are bred and raised for these very purposes. Therefore it is not mental capacity that justifies what we do to other animals.

I have tried to find an argument that pure speciesism is not the reason for our treatment of animals, but all of them seem to agree that speciesism is present, but that it is morally acceptable for various reasons.1

Speciesism can also be manifested in our differential treatment of different kinds of animals.  An orangutan is considered more valuable than an antelope, which is considered more valuable than a salamander, which is considered more valuable than a dung beetle. Again, differences in cognitive abilities are usually cited for these distinctions, but the judgments are generally based on how the species is perceived by humans. If they exhibit signs of intelligence similar to our own, they are seen as more valuable. But things like whether we find them beautiful or cute as opposed to ugly or scary, and how often we are exposed to them come into the picture also. And in building this hierarchy of moral value, humans are implicitly placed at the top, which would be the case, since we are the only ones who get a say in the matter.

One possible problem with this concept is that it itself can be extended. Why do animals have more moral value than plants, fungi, or bacteria? Just because an organism moves, obtains energy, and reproduces in similar ways to ours, and has a body with a nervous system that works like our own, does that make it worth protecting over others? We could say that giving animals more value than other organisms is a kind of ‘kingdomism.’ Because of this, I think that notions of sentience are relevant to the conversation. However, to my knowledge there is not enough data on the inner lives of plants and other organisms to continue this line of reasoning at this time.

The following theories recognize the problem of speciesism and propose ways to improve our relationships with animals without solely invoking a form of prejudice:


Peter Singer is the major proponent of this theory, which says that the morally right choice is always the one that minimizes suffering. He says that any being that can feel pain and pleasure has an interest in living and not suffering, and therefore has an experience that is morally relevant. He recognizes that our world is not one where suffering can be eliminated entirely, so he advocates always making the choice that causes the least amount of suffering to the least number of beings. A choice that causes the suffering of a few in order to prevent the suffering of many is ethical, under this view.3

There is certainly a lot that is appealing about this theory. It recognizes the suffering and preferences of non-human animals and gives them equal weight to those of humans. It allows for cases where inflicting suffering is morally justified. It takes into account the many conflicts between human and animal interests, where one group’s gain is the other’s loss. The attempt to turn these difficult ethical dilemmas into a numbers game makes sense, because it seems to simplify the problem.

However, numerous problems arise if we fully commit to this theory. Perhaps the biggest one is how to quantify suffering. Even with human suffering, it seems impossible to compare one person’s experience with another’s. To add to the problem, we don’t know what animals’ experiences are like, or how exactly our actions affect them. In addition, it’s not always clear whether a decision will in fact reduce suffering, and by how much. Singer wants us to just add up the net suffering that would result from either choice and choose the one with the smallest number. That isn’t really possible in practice.

Even if we could somehow assign a value to an internal experience, this theory would force us into some tricky situations. If we talk simply in terms of how many lives are ended versus preserved, the utilitarian view says that we should wipe out the human race. The US food industry alone kills about 10 billion land animals every year!4 And there are only about 7 billion of us. Clearly, if this is a numbers game, we have no ethical right to exist. This is an extreme example, but there are endlessly many cases where the utilitarian answer does not always feel like the ethical choice. Any ethical theory or justification that uses a “for the greater good” argument throws a red flag for me for these kinds of reasons.

Animal Rights Theory:

Possibly a more intuitive view is Tom Regan’s animal rights. He argues that every being with sense-perceptions, beliefs, motives, and desires has inherent value. Harming that being, causing it suffering, or taking its life violates that value and is therefore morally wrong. These beings should be treated with the respect with which their inherent value endows them, and cannot be harmed by other beings for their own gain.5

I like this theory because it comes from the intuitive idea that hurting another living thing is wrong. Instead of talking about huge incomprehensible numbers that may or may not accurately represent the situation, this theory deals with individuals. When talking about human ethics, this is usually the approach we take. Individual humans have the right to a life free from suffering, just because of their inherent value. If we reject speciesism, it follows that this should be true of animals as well.

There are clearly problems with this theory as well. Regan seems to make the distinction between actively causing harm and allowing harm to happen. He argues that we cannot inflict suffering on a living thing with inherent value, even if that action would have prevented the otherwise inevitable suffering of others. This gets tricky. If a child is dying because there is a ringworm living inside of it, an animal rights theorist would have to let this happen. The ringworm has sense-perceptions certainly, motives, desires, and beliefs debatably. Assuming it does, tt therefore has a right to life, which unfortunately involves taking the life of the child. Just as with utilitarianism, there are a million ways this theory can be applied and feel wrong.


An extension of animal rights theory, advocated for by Gary Francione, is animal abolitionism. The idea is that since animals cannot choose whether or not to participate in our society, we should not use them for anything. Any use of animals, from eating their meat to keeping them as pets, is exploitative and morally reprehensible. This is clearly an extreme view, even by the animal activist standard. Francione argues that small steps like encouraging vegetarianism are actually counter-productive because they make people feel better about living in an exploitative system.6 For him it’s all or nothing. I see why he would think this way, but the view seems alienating and not very productive, so I won’t spend much time on it.


None of these theories is particularly satisfying to me (this is why I don’t like studying philosophy). I suppose my own ethical instincts are a blend of utilitarianism and animal rights theory. I do think that causing suffering to an animal is morally wrong, because that individual life should be respected. But I don’t think there is much of a moral difference between inflicting harm and knowingly allowing harm to happen. The difficult questions are difficult because there is no way to eliminate suffering altogether. In these cases, I think you are forced to take a utilitarian stance and just try to minimize suffering. I suppose this view is something like ‘animal rights until forced into utilitarianism’ but that’s not very rigorous or well-defined.

I would like to point out that none of these theories ethically justify raising animals in factory farm conditions, keeping wild animals in zoos, or testing cosmetic products on animals. These are not the difficult questions I am referring to. Where these theories disagree is on issues like whether we can keep animals as pets, perform certain medical research on animals, or infringe on their habitats. Even though the jury is still out on these more complex issues, our actions are far from ethical when it comes to animals, and this should change.

1 Wikipedia on Speciesism
2 Ryder, Richard D. (1971). “Experiments on Animals,” in Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris (eds.), Animals, Men and Morals, Victor Gollanz, pp. 41–82.
3 Wikipedia on Peter Singer, Wikipedia on Utilitarianism
4 Organic Consumers Association
5 Wikipedia on Tom Regan
6 Wikipedia on Gary Francione, Wikipedia on Abolitionism


3 responses to “Animal Ethics Theory and Philosophy

  1. Thank you for posting this! I haven’t really considered this issue from so many different perspectives.

    I like the speciesism concept.


  2. Pingback: See No Evil:  The Bigger Picture of Live Export | Animals in Society Working Group

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