What Are Three Theories of Animal Ethics?

Virtually everyone believes animals deserve moral consideration but there are a wide range of views on how much. We discuss three views on animal ethics.

Dec 5, 2023By Ryan Alexander, PhD Philosophy

 

Thinking about animal ethics, or the moral status of non-human animals, raises interesting questions about the scope of the moral community. This is the community of beings who are owed moral consideration, whose interests are legitimate subjects of moral deliberation. We humans are paradigm members of this community because virtually everyone agrees our interests are morally relevant. Sticks and stones, needless to say, are not because they have no interests at all; nothing that can go better or worse for them. 

 

Animals’ Place in Society

Details of Landscape with Cows Watering in a Stream, Robert Seldon Duncanson, 1871. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Details of Landscape with Cows Watering in a Stream, Robert Seldon Duncanson, 1871. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Standing between these paradigm cases are non-human animals. They are members of the moral community insofar as we believe that they should not, say, gratuitously suffer. But they are not equal members of the moral community to the extent we use them in ways we would otherwise find abhorrent, such as food and experimentation. To begin untangling these threads, in this article we’ll discuss three views about animals’ moral status from Scott Wright’s excellent article on animal ethics: indirect theories, direct-but-unequal theories, and direct-and-equal theories. Each says that animals deserve moral consideration—none endorses the radical view that we can treat animals any way we wish—but they disagree about the ground and scope of this consideration.

 

Theory 1: Animals Are Owed Only Indirect Moral Consideration

Two Oxen Pulling a Cart, Peter Christian Thamsen Skovgaard, 1874. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Two Oxen Pulling a Cart, Peter Christian Thamsen Skovgaard, 1874. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Indirect theories say that animals’ moral status is grounded in human interests and that these interests delimit the scope of moral consideration owed to animals. So animals have no intrinsic moral standing; this standing is wholly determined by human considerations. For example, indirect theories would say it’s wrong to mistreat someone’s dog, but only because its guardian (or someone else) would find this objectionable; or that confining animals in a zoo is wrong, but only if this negatively impacts the zookeepers, say, by causing them distress about the animals’ suffering.  

 

The point to keep your eye on—and this applies to all three theories we’ll discuss—is that indirect theories must make two moves. First, they must identify a morally relevant property that humans possess and non-human animals do not, since possessing this property is what makes something a subject of moral consideration at all (remember sticks and stones). This is the ground of moral consideration. Second, they must settle on how much latitude we have when determining the consideration animals are owed. What if the zookeeper (or someone else) is entirely unmoved by the caged animals’ suffering? What if the dog guardian becomes uninterested in her dog’s welfare? This is the scope of moral consideration.  

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Theory 2: Animals Are Owed Direct-but-Unequal Moral Consideration

Petting Zoo, Photographer Unknown, 1951. Source: Wikimedia.
Petting Zoo, Photographer Unknown, 1951. Source: Wikimedia.

 

One objection to indirect theories is that the scope of moral consideration owed to animals is precarious. Because these theories locate the ground of this standing within humans alone, there is a risk this ground will shift and leave animals morally bereft. Direct-but-unequal theories of animal ethics remedy this. They say that animals have moral standing intrinsically—this status is not a function of other interests, like those of humans’—but that this standing is lower than humans’. 

 

Like indirect ones, direct-but-unequal theories can be evaluated in terms of the ground and scope of moral consideration they say animals are owed. One proposal says the ground of animals’ direct moral standing is their sentience—their capacity for pleasure and pain. After all, sentience is plausibly necessary and sufficient for having interests in the first place, for a sentient being will want to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. Sentience is a morally relevant property. 

 

Animals’ Direct Moral Standing

young herdsman painting cuyp
Young Herdsmen with Cows by Aelbert Cuyp, ca. 1655–60. Source: The Met Museum.

 

But the scope of animals’ direct moral standing remains limited on these theories. This is because they say animal ethics can be outweighed by those of humans. To sustain this position, direct-but-unequal theories must identify a distinct ground of humans’ moral standing, and this ground must explain why the scope of moral consideration owed to animals is limited. For example, in a broadly Kantian spirit it might be argued that a capacity for ethical reasoning is a morally relevant property, and that insofar as animals do not share this capacity they are not candidates for equal moral consideration. When the interests of rational humans and of sentient animals conflict, therefore, direct-but-unequal theories believe the former should be honored. 

 

Theory 3: Animals Are Owed Direct and Equal Moral Consideration

Farm animals by a field shelter, Eugène Verboeckhoven, 1870. Source: Bonhams.
Farm animals by a field shelter, Eugène Verboeckhoven, 1870. Source: Bonhams.

 

To get a handle on direct-and-equal theories, notice that the theories canvassed so far exhibit a tension between the ground and scope of our moral obligations to animals. On one hand, if the ground of these obligations is located in human interests, as indirect theories maintain, then this risks leaving animals vulnerable to moral indifference whenever their treatment doesn’t infringe these interests. On the other hand, if the ground of these obligations is located directly in animals but subordinated to human interests, as direct-but-unequal theorists maintain, then this risks making other humans vulnerable to moral indifference. This is because not all humans, such as the young, handicapped or infirm, will possess the property—rationality, self-consciousness, language, whatever it may be—that grounds the moral superiority that direct-but-unequal theories say humans should enjoy. 

 

Direct-but-equal theories attempt to resolve this tension. Unlike indirect theories, they deny that no animals intrinsically have moral standing. So worries about making animals vulnerable to moral indifference are averted. And, unlike direct-but-unequal theories, they deny that humans enjoy superior moral status. So worries about moral indifference to so-called ‘marginal cases’—those humans who do not possess the morally relevant property, like rationality and so on, that purportedly grounds their higher moral status—are also averted.

 

Further Moral Considerations

Ovale con putti (parete est della Camera di San Paolo), Antonio da Correggio, 1518-19.
Ovale con putti (parete est della Camera di San Paolo), Antonio da Correggio, 1518-19.

 

At this juncture a common refrain says direct-and-equal theories go too far, for surely animal and human interests are not at parity in all cases. But these theories are subtler than this. For the principle of equal consideration they favor says simply that like interests should be treated alike. For example, since we and non-human animals have interests in pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, direct-and-equal theories say these interests are morally on par. So, when comparing the suffering animals experience in industrialized farming to the pleasure we derive from eating them, these theories would counsel against eating these animals so long as our pleasure does not outweigh their suffering (as it almost certainly doesn’t). 

 

This leaves open the possibility that there are other distinctly human interests that morally outweigh those of animals, however. Direct-and-equal theories do not posit complete moral parity between humans and animals. But pursuing this possibility is delicate, since the problem of marginal cases tells us that not all humans will share these ‘distinctly human’ interests, leaving theorists the choice of either biting the bullet on marginal cases’ moral status or accepting the moral equality of those interests we share with animals. Most would agree that the latter option is the least radical, but animals’ moral status within the field of animal ethics remains a topic of debate.  

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By Ryan AlexanderPhD PhilosophyRyan holds a PhD in philosophy