This video turns to what different kinds of ethical theories imply about how we should treat animals. We will see that despite their differences, they all imply (or are at least compatible with) full moral consideration of animals. We should therefore challenge speciesism regardless of which moral theory we accept.
Also available as a chapter of our companion ebook to the video course Introduction to wild animal suffering: A guide to the issues
Once we have seen the main arguments for and against speciesist views, we can consider what the main views in ethics today may have to say about this issue. Ethics is about our ultimate reasons for acting in certain ways. Among other things, ethical thinking has the job of detecting contradictions among different moral views we might have. For example, if we claim that we should respect all those who can suffer and that we can exploit nonhuman animals, then that is a contradiction. In addition, we may prefer some ways of acting to others for other reasons, such as how they match other moral views we see as acceptable. Ethical theories result from this reflection on how we should act. There are many different ethical theories, which differ according to the way they require us to act and in the arguments that support them. We will see the main ones and the way the moral consideration of animals can be assessed according to them.
For many situations, different ethical theories disagree about how we should act. For example, according to some views, it is always wrong to tell a lie, regardless of the consequences. According to others, whether or not we should lie depends on the situation and what the outcome would be for those affected by the lie. Despite their differences, the most widely accepted ethical theories can all support a defense of the moral consideration of nonhuman animals and the rejection of speciesism. Arguments questioning speciesism are about how we decide who we should give moral consideration to and are not specific to a single theory. However, each theory also has its own arguments, different from the others, since each theory has its own framework of reasons for why we should act in some ways and not in others.
Most theories in ethics fall within one of the following three main paradigms: consequentialist theories, deontological theories, and character-based theories.1
(1) Consequentialist views claim that what we should do is determined by what actions make the situation better, or less bad. They claim, for example, that we should minimize suffering, maximize happiness, or minimize inequality. Robin Hood exemplifies a type of consequentialist view — he steals from the rich to give to the poor. His actions can be guided by the principle that we should act in a way that reduces inequality, or that promotes the general happiness, or that reduces suffering, and he disregards the conventional moral norm that it is always wrong to steal.
(2) Deontological views claim, instead, that there are certain actions that we are obligated to take because we should follow a rule or norm, even if by doing so we make the situation worse. Other actions are prohibited, even when by taking those actions we make the situation better. Someone with a deontological view might think they should never tell a lie, even to protect someone from harm, or that it’s wrong to worsen the situation for someone who is innocent even if by doing so we could make the situation less bad for other people.
(3) Character-based views are a third type of approach, based on the claim that we should have a certain morally sound character, and act accordingly. They will typically stress the importance of developing certain moral qualities, such as kindness and fair-mindedness, and they will act in a way that expresses those qualities.
There are different particular theories that fall within each of these paradigms. We will now see what they defend and how they are compatible with opposing speciesism.
We have seen that one family of theories is consequentialism. An example of a consequentialist theory is utilitarianism. In a nutshell, utilitarianism claims that we should minimize the total amount of suffering and maximize the total amount of happiness. This theory necessarily has to count all the pleasures and all the suffering equally regardless of who is experiencing them, because valuing some instances of suffering more than others would not achieve the best result.2 It is impossible to achieve this without all sentient beings being considered equally.
There are some ethical theories that are compatible with multiple paradigms. One of them is egalitarianism, of which there are both consequentialist and deontological versions. Egalitarianism doesn’t defend homogeneity. Rather, egalitarianism is a family of ethical theories according to which a situation is improved if the positive and negative things are distributed the least unequally. Egalitarians might claim that equality is good because inequality is bad in itself, or because it’s unfair.
According to egalitarianism, it’s better if everyone lives at a satisfying level of happiness, rather than if some enjoy paradise-like conditions while others are suffering in a very bad situation. This would be the case even if in the second situation the total sum of happiness minus suffering was higher. What matters in egalitarianism is not only that the amount of happiness be as high as possible, but also that, for those who are worse off, the bad situation is improved as much as possible.
Because egalitarianism is concerned with equality, it’s opposed to views that defend the unequal consideration of interests. Like other ethical views, egalitarianism entails that the interests of nonhuman animals must be taken into account just as the interests of human beings are. Moreover, a consistent egalitarian has an additional reason to care about the interests of nonhuman animals. Nonhuman animals are typically in much worse situations than human beings. In order to best promote equality, then, an egalitarian should give extra importance to helping them.3
A view that is similar to egalitarianism is prioritarianism. This view is not really concerned with inequality itself. It gives priority to improving the situation of those who are the worst off. Therefore, the practical consequences concerning nonhuman animals coincide with those of egalitarianism.4
Another family of ethical theories that covers many different views, including both consequentialist and deontological positions, are suffering-focused ethics. These positions maintain that reducing suffering has priority over other things, such as promoting happiness. According to suffering-focused views, there is no possible amount of happiness in the world that can compensate for the existence of suffering, or at least of extreme suffering.
There are several forms of suffering-focused ethics. Some of them are types of what is known as negative consequentialism. This name comes from the fact that these views give reducing what is negative (such as suffering) priority over promoting what is positive (such as pleasure). One negative consequentialist theory is negative utilitarianism. Negative utilitarianism commonly advocates reducing suffering as much as possible, regardless of whose it is. Other possible forms of negative consequentialism include negative prioritarianism, and egalitarian views focused on reducing negative things and helping those who are suffering the most. The name for this last kind of view is negative consequentialist egalitarianism — negative because it prioritizes reducing suffering, consequentialist because actions are considered according to their consequences, and egalitarian because it’s concerned with equality. Finally, there are other suffering-focused views that are not consequentialist. One could be that we should follow a deontological rule to reduce suffering. Or that reducing suffering is what someone with a virtuous or a caring moral character would do.
These positions are not compatible with disregarding the interests of any being who can suffer. Disregarding someone’s suffering would amount to not considering some of the suffering in the world. This would make it impossible to achieve the aims of these theories. To put it simply: it’s impossible to hold a view that places importance on reducing suffering and not include animal suffering.5
Rights theories are compatible with both consequentialist and deontological approaches, but are most often deontological. Rights views maintain that there are things we cannot do to individuals because they are holders of moral rights. Legal rights also protect the interests of individuals, but legal rights and moral rights are different things. Here we are dealing with ethical approaches, so everything that is said here has to do with moral, not legal, rights. According to a standard defense of rights, we should act in a way that we would want everyone else to act as well. It has been traditionally believed that this entails respecting all humans. A common expression of this is that all humans should be treated as ends in themselves, rather than as mere means to an end. This is because if we want others to respect us this way, then we should act the same.
We have to consider that nonhuman animals are sentient too. If we were in their place, we would not find it acceptable to have our interests disregarded as theirs are. “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” then applies in their case as well. Although nonhuman animals can’t always treat us the same way we treat them, we can think of this as, “treat others as you would want to be treated if you were in their situation.” This is, after all, how we treat human babies and other humans who are unable to reciprocate the respect we give them. Due to this, many contemporary rights theorists have pointed out that not only humans — but all sentient animals — should be considered as ends in themselves.6
Finally, two examples of character ethics are virtue ethics and care ethics. The virtue ethics approach in moral philosophy defends the view that when deciding how to live, we should consider not what would make the world a better place or what norms we should obey, but rather whether our actions would be virtuous ones.
Some virtue ethicists have claimed that to be virtuous is to fulfill our potential to become full moral agents, and we can only fulfill such potential by letting others satisfy their own interests as well. Since sentient beings are harmed when they cannot satisfy their own best interests, the virtue ethics approach implies respecting the interests of others. Moreover, because insensitivity is not considered virtuous, we could also claim that the most virtuous action would be not to just do no harm, but to actually do good, and to try to help animals whenever possible.7
Care ethics prescribes that we should have a caring attitude towards the needs of others, helping them when they need it and refraining from harming them. Traditionally, this view also values the relationships that caring agents have with other beings. Because of this, we might think that since we usually have stronger relationships with humans, we should give priority to their interests and pay less attention to the interests of nonhuman animals. However, this is rejected by those who argue that we cannot be considered caring agents if we fail to care for the interests of beings we know are suffering. Being a caring agent would require having a caring response to that suffering. This is setting aside the fact that many people have closer relationships with some nonhuman animals than with other humans.8
We should also keep in mind that, as we saw previously, the situation of most nonhuman animals today is in general much worse than the situation of most human beings. Due to this, care ethicists should prescribe paying special attention to them. How bad their situation is can outweigh our lack of personal relationship with them.
So, to conclude, the main ethical theories today all seem to imply, or are compatible with, full moral consideration for nonhuman animals. This means that in order to oppose speciesism and promote helping animals, we don’t have to accept any particular ethical view. Challenging speciesism is compatible with all of them.
1 Pettit, P. (ed.) (1993) Consequentialism, Aldershot: Dartmouth; Hursthouse, R. (1999) On virtue ethics, Oxford: Clarendon; Darwall, S. (ed.) (2008) Deontology, Oxford: Blackwell.
2 Mill, J. S. (1969 ) Whewell on moral philosophy, in Collected works, vol. X, London: Routledge, pp. 165-201; Singer, P. (2011 ) Practical ethics, 3rd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Matheny, G. (2006) “Utilitarianism and animals”, in Singer, P. (ed.) In defense of animals: The second wave, Malden: Blackwell, pp. 13-25; de Lazari-Radek, K. & Singer, P. (2014) The point of view of the universe: Sidgwick and contemporary ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3 Gompertz, L. (1997 ) Moral inquiries on the situation of man and of brutes, London: Open Gate; Crisp, R. (2003) “Equality, priority, and compassion”, Ethics, 113, pp. 745-763; Faria, C. (2014) “Equality, priority and nonhuman animals”, Dilemata, 14, pp. 225-236; Horta, O. (2016) “Egalitarianism and animals”, Between the Species, 19, https://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/bts/vol19/iss1/5, pp. 109-145 [accessed on 20 August 2016]. For more general presentations of egalitarianism, see Temkin, L. (1993) Inequality, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Holtug, N. & Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (eds.) (2007) Egalitarianism: New essays on the nature and value of equality, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
4 Holtug, N. (2007) “Equality for animals,” in Ryberg, J.; Petersen, T. S. & Wolf, C. (eds.) New waves in applied ethics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-24. Prioritarianism is defended in Parfit, D. (1995) Equality or priority, Kansas: University of Kansas.
5 Contestabile, B. (2020 ) “Negative utilitarianism and justice”, Practical philosophy: A Socratic examination of the Buddhist truths, http://www.socrethics.com/Folder2/Justice.htm [accessed on 28 March 2020]; Leighton, J. (2011) The battle for compassion: Ethics in an apathetic universe, New York: Algora. See also Mayerfeld, J. (2002) Suffering and moral responsibility, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Gloor, L. (2019 ) “The case for suffering-focused ethics”, Center on Long-Term Risk, https://longtermrisk.org/the-case-for-suffering-focused-ethics [accessed on 16 November 2019].
6 Regan, T. (2004 ) The case for animal rights, 2nd ed., Berkeley: University of California Press; Francione, G. L. (2000) Introduction to animal rights: Your child or the dog?, Philadelphia: Temple University Press; Franklin, J. H. (2005) Animal rights and moral philosophy, New York: Columbia University Press; Korsgaard, C. M. (2018) Fellow creatures: Our obligations to the other animals, Oxford: Oxford University Press. See also Kant, I. (2020 ) Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals, Oxford: Oxford University Press. For contractarian defenses of animal rights see Rowlands, M. (2009 ) Animal rights: Moral, theory and practice, 2nd ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan; see also Rawls, J. (1999 ) A theory of justice, rev. ed., Cambridge: Harvard University Press; VanDeVeer, D. (1979) “On beasts, persons and the original position”, The Monist, 62, pp. 368-377.
7 Hursthouse, R. (2000) Ethics, humans, and other animals: An introduction with readings, New York: Routledge; Nobis, N. (2002) “Vegetarianism and virtue: Does consequentialism demand too little?”, Social Theory and Practice, 28, pp. 135-156; see also Hursthouse, R. (2001) On virtue ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Annas, J. (2011) Intelligent virtue, New York: Oxford University Press.
8 Donovan, J. (2006) “Feminism and the treatment of animals: From care to dialogue”, Signs, 31, pp. 305-329; Adams, C. J. & Donovan, J. (eds.) (2007) The feminist care tradition in animal ethics: A reader, New York: Columbia University Press. See also Held, V. (2006) The ethics of care: Personal, political, and global, Oxford: Oxford University Press.