Chapter 14 Animals and Ethics

The history of ethics might be looked at a history of the gradual expansion of ethical consideration. Tribal loyalties are replaced by national loyalties, and eventually loyalties to all of humanity; exclusion of women and people in minority groups are replaced by universal rights for all human beings regardless of race or gender. Some philosophers insist that this “expanding circle” of ethics has not quite expanded as far as it should even with universal human rights. At present the majority of human beings act as if the circle of ethical consideration stops at the border of the human species, as if no non-human animals deserve true ethical consideration. Hence we keep certain non-human animals as pets, kill them for food and sport, and perform countless experiments on them in labs without even wondering whether this violates ethical rules that we should pay attention to. In this section we are going to examine a number of arguments concerning the proposed expansion of ethics to include granting at least some animals moral consideration. Note that moral consideration does not mean the same thing as moral rights, and that although some philosophers, most notably Tom Regan insist that some animals be granted rights, not all who defend granting animals moral consideration follow Regan in this.

Before roughly two hundred years ago, humans for the most part assumed what I’d like to call the “dogma of difference.” This is the idea that whatever our relationship to animals may be, it is the differences between us and them that should be emphasized, not the (mostly superficial) similarities. In the Old Testament, for example, the story is told of how God created animals separately than human beings and grated us dominion over all of the other animals and plants on the earth, to use as we see fit. The differences between humans and animals according to this story are that we are the ends of creation, and animals are just the means that we can and should use for our benefit. Likewise, according to this tradition, it is humans alone who have souls, and thus we are in a unique position to control nature, while animals as a part of non-human nature are subject to our control.

The modern philosopher Rene Descartes took the Christian idea that animals have no souls to its logical conclusion when he suggested that animals have much more in common with inanimate machines, such as clocks, than they do with human beings. This is because animals have only bodies, the movements of which are subject, according to the scientific perspective Descartes helped to create, to entirely mechanical explanations. If animals have no souls, then they also lack what comes from having a soul – inner experience, experience of pleasure and pain, experience of one’s own thoughts, fears and desires. Since, as Descartes argued, according to the tradition going back at least to the Old Testament, animals do not have souls, they are thus incapable of experiencing anything, not even pleasure or pain. How then do we explain why it is that animals appear to experience things, like pain for example? Well, when a dog makes noises as a result of being injured, this would have to be the same kind of thing that your alarm clock does when it is set to go off at a certain time – it makes noises for purely mechanical reasons. Since both clocks and dogs lack souls their noises are not experienced “from inside” by anyone or anything – there is “nobody home” inside a dog or a clock. The ethical implications of this are that there are no ethical implications – however we treat animals is OK, since not only did God give us dominion over animals, they do not even really experience the kinds of things that we experience when we ask others not to harm us or set back our interests.

This extreme view of the dogma of difference was challenged somewhat, though not entirely, by later philosophers, like Kant. Kant believed, as we have seen that the basis for genuine moral relations with other persons is their ability to understand what it means to respect another being. This requires rationality, the ability to understand the abstract idea of respect. Since, in his view, animals lack this ability, they neither owe us nor are owed respect. In terms of Kant’s distinction between persons and things, animals fall entirely on the side of things, possessing merely instrumental value. However, Kant did recognize that certain animal behaviors bear an analogy with human behavior – hence a dog cries out in pain when beaten. Whether or not the animal is “really” feeling pain when a person beats it does not matter as much as the fact that it seems to. Kant reasons that if it seems to us that animals feel pain when mistreated this may serve to harden us to human suffering, and this would be an unwelcome outcome. Kant clearly endorses the dogma of difference since it is only his belief that mistreating animals will have bad effects on human relations to other humans that underlies his view that we should not abuse animals too much.

Since the nineteenth century however, the development of the science of biology has fundamentally challenged one of the major supports of the dogma of difference by challenging the strict separation between animals and humans on scientific grounds. As modern biology has amply demonstrated, we are made of the same basic stuff, the same complex biochemicals organized in the same ways into the same types of cells, tissues and organs as other animals. Further, as is now completely accepted by biology, we are related to all other living things, from the lowliest fungus on up the scale of complexity to the most complex mammals – we are all part of a single, vast family tree going back to the first appearance of life on earth some four billion years ago. In addition to these deep similarities between all life forms, there is much evidence that human behavior is not as different from animals’ behavior (especially the behavior of other mammals) as Descartes and others believed. The evidence comes in the form of studies of the physiological basis of human and animal experience and behavior. Although we can never really know from inside what it is like to be a dog or a cow, we do know that dog and cow brains have the same parts that support experiences of pain and pleasure in us. In addition, scientists have spent years documenting the complexities of social organization in such animals as chimpanzees and gorillas and the picture that emerges here is that certain animals are not really that different from humans.

Biology, however, does not simply point out that we are much more closely related to other living things than we previously suspected. It also provides us with a powerful set of tools for more effectively and efficiently exploiting animals for our purposes. Consider the modern “factory farm” in which biology is put to work to maximize the yield from animals for human purposes. Modern methods of animal production involve:

  • Living conditions designed for maximum efficiency in feeding and growth – cows in a feedlot get fat quicker with the use of less land than cows on the open range; pigs are bred for lean and consistent flesh produced in the shortest period of time.
  • Scientifically engineered diets designed to make them grow as quickly as possible – cows raised for meat are feed high protein diets to give their flesh a rich fat content that us humans have a taste for; animal feed is mixed with growth promoting and disease inhibiting antibiotics.
  • Special methods employed for particular results or to address problems caused by intensive production: chickens have their beaks partially cut off to keep them from killing each other when they attack each other in overcrowded coops; veal calves are kept from moving to keep their flesh tender; pigs are increasingly raised indoors because decades of being bred for rapid meat production makes them incapable of surviving in their natural habitat, outside they would be quickly killed by cold and disease.
  • Use of hormones to increase yield: milk cows are injected with hormones so they produce more milk and their feed is supplemented with animal protein (ground up cows, chickens, horses, pigs, etc.) to enable them to produce the extra milk.

All of this is made possible by our increased understanding of the way animals work. So the ironic result of biology is that it supports the idea that animals are not that different from us and so maybe might deserve more moral consideration, and at the same time enables us to make much more efficient and ruthless use of animals as meat and milk production machines. As a result of biology, animals, paradoxically, appear both more like persons that have moral value and more like things that have only instrumental value. Rather than solving the problem of the moral status of animals, modern biology presents us with a dilemma: our knowledge of the way animals work gives us both more reason to respect them and more opportunity to exploit them.