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Analysing Animal Ethics: It Is Not You, It Is Me

The question of whether and under what premises animals ought to be respected morally gains force through the always-expanding debate. Even though there are compelling arguments for including non-human animals within the moral domain, there seems to be an insurmountable arbitrariness in selecting who or what should count when a moral decision is made. In what follows, it will be shown that the two most mainstream philosophical views attempting to include animals within the moral domain miss an important point regarding morality: morality has to do as much with the characteristics of those towards whom these actions are directed as with our own experiences as human beings. This aspect of morality is relevant because it puts our daily actions towards others into perspective. It also examines our behaviour when there is an increasing need for moral consciousness towards animals and nature. By analysing animal ethics and its mainstream proponents, we could better understand our moral relationship with nature in general. Thus, the mainstream philosophical positions of utilitarianism and animal rights theory will be revised, along with some difficulties they face. After this, an alternative view that deals with those difficulties will be presented.

The Moral Circle

The efforts made to acknowledge the interest of animals in our daily actions have mostly focused on including them in our “moral circle”, i.e. a “circle of concern” that considers what beings are morally relevant to us as humans. Applied to individuals, this concept includes family members, friends, acquaintances, and strangers we might encounter daily. We morally respect these individuals since our actions generally acknowledge their importance. In the case of humanity as a whole, the moral circle includes, at least, members of the human race. 

Lying Cow, Van Gogh, 1883
Figure 1: "Lying Cow" (Van Gogh, 1883).

An important aspect of belonging to the moral circle is that, by being included, beings have a “moral standing”. This means, in James Rachels’ (2006) words, that “from a moral point of view, you have claims that must be heard—that your interests constitute morally good reasons why you may, or may not, be treated in this or that way” (Rachels, 2006, p. 164). For example, humans have moral standing because it is in our interest not to be tortured or subject to certain treatment, and others should consider these interests when deciding how to act. We have a claim, in other words, to be treated in a way in which our interests are respected. It should not be concluded, of course, that any claim of ours should be respected. Morally speaking, at least a set of basic claims seem commonly agreed upon towards our treatment of others. A good example of these claims could be found in common rules like “do not kill” or “do not steal”.  Then, the implications for those within our moral circle, when human, are straightforward. Regardless of whether we like a person or not, humans are always inside of the circle because we morally reproach actions that arbitrarily (or without sufficient reason) violate the well-being of others. We despise actions of torture or extreme violence towards others because we take into consideration other people’s interests.

As Rachels has pointed out, the question about expanding or contracting the moral circle implies drawing a line regarding what should be included and what type of treatment we owe to those in it. People have a moral standing because fair moral treatment is owed to us. In the case of animals, it gets more obscure. We may have a moral duty towards dogs, cats, or cattle not to make them suffer, but what about cockroaches or snails?

The Bachelor Party, Louis Wain, 1896
Figure 2: "The Bachelor Party" (Wain, 1896).

Most philosophical theories present different arguments for expanding or contracting the circle. The reasons presented by philosophers are usually linked to a characteristic or sets of characteristics possessed by creatures that make them “suitable” for being within the circle. However, as it will be shown, this is a limiting position. Utilitarianism and the animal rights theory are the two mainstream philosophical positions that advocate for the consideration of non-human animals in our decision-making. Although these theories are diverse in their approach, both exhibit some level of arbitrariness in deciding what natural traits are relevant for a being to be morally considered. 


From its origins, as presented by Jeremy Bentham (1789) and John Stuart Mill (1861), this theory holds that in order to decide how we should act morally, we need to look at the consequences actions bring about. For an action to be morally right, it should bring maximum utility. Thus, if we want to know what the best course of action to take is, we should take a look at the principle of utility. This principle states that an action is morally approved or disapproved “according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question” (Bentham, 1961, I 2). For this reason, utilitarianism is philosophically considered to endorse a welfarist and egalitarian approach because it promotes actions that bring about pleasure in terms of satisfying individuals’ interests, and, at the same time, those interests should be considered equally for everybody.The principles of utilitarianism have been widely applied to situations involving the well-being of human beings, but a further extension of these ideas has also started considering animals. The most known example of this is seen in the work of Peter Singer (1990), who presents a utilitarian account for the advocacy of animal rights and the abolition of the inhumane conditions of animal factories. In a context in which the world is dying, and animal factories are largely the cause of the disaster and unhealthy source of food, general human interests could lead us to the direction of a solution. 

For the utilitarianist, pleasure can manifest in many forms and many different circumstances. Whether physical or mental, pleasure is the standard that guides action. Consequently, we must always choose the action that brings about the largest amount of pleasure, i.e. the one that maximizes it. As Gaverick Matheny (2006) describes, the notion of individual interests is taken by utilitarians not just to promote pleasure but also to avoid suffering. It is safe to say, Matheny argues, that an individual’s interest involves less possible suffering. Therefore, an action’s “good outcome” maximally promotes the interest of the individuals affected by that action in avoiding suffering. 

Courtyard With Animals and Flowers, David de Coninck, 1636-1687
Figure 3: "Courtyard With Animals and Flowers" (De Coninck, 1636-1687).

The extension of this principle to animals is straightforward. We could generally agree that certain animals can suffer. In the same way that I scream when somebody pulls my ear or hits my face, most animals give signs of discomfort when subjected to unpleasurable treatment. We do not need special information about some animal's nervous systems to recognize their suffering. Consequently, for the utilitarian, recognizing an animal’s suffering also recognizes their own interests. Lori Gruen (1993) describes the utilitarian principle of equality as considering the ability to perceive the world of all individuals. By acknowledging those abilities, we also acknowledge their interests. Including a being within our circle depends upon their capacity to suffer; it is a necessary condition to be morally considered. From this theory, the issue seems easy to solve. It would be enough for us to find a way to stop suffering in all its forms for an action to be morally correct. We could be connected to a machine and not feel pain or distress for the rest of our lives while being experimented on, but would that be morally right to do with others, animal or human? Would not we care if this was the case?

Animal Rights Theory

The most renowned proponent of this theory is Tom Regan (2017), and his view on the inclusion of individuals into our moral circle considers the distinction between moral agents and moral patients. This distinction clarifies the importance of including someone in the moral domain of concern. On the one hand, moral agents are those beings capable of using moral principles to determine what is to be done, while moral patients do not have this capacity; thus, the latter cannot be held accountable for their actions. The contrast between one and the other is clear if we see the difference between the behaviour of an adult human being and a child. Whereas the adult human being can be held accountable for, say, murdering someone, a three-year-old child has not yet acquired the capacity to understand that such an action could be morally reproachable. As a moral patient, the child still has claims towards others to be treated in a certain way, but he or she does not do what is “right” or “wrong” because of considerations as the adult would. In this case, the expansion of the moral circle involves beings who are moral patients but may not be, and maybe will never be, moral agents. Children and humans who will never be able to reason morally are the epitome of moral patients. 

The case of animals is similar to that of some humans since some may never become moral agents. Animal rights theorists believe both cases share an important aspect. This theory does not ground the inclusion of beings into our moral circle based on their capacity to suffer. The expansion of the circle to animals depends on the characteristic of being a “subject-of-a-life.” By this, Regan says that:

individuals are subjects-of-a-life if they have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference- and welfare-interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their experiential life fares well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for others and logically independently of their being the object of anyone else’s interests. (Regan, 2017, p. 59)

Peaceable Kingdom, Edward Hicks, ca. 1832-1834
Figure 4: "The Peaceable Kingdom" (Hicks, ca. 1832-1834).

Being a subject-of-a-life, says Regan, is the main characteristic that different types of moral patients and moral agents have in common. Although some animals might not foresee a future, many of them do have an emotional life; they have their own type of desires and goals and seek welfare. This makes both have a value in themselves independently of the capacities they possess or the experiences they have or could have. Their value, in other words, is incommensurable with any set of individual characteristics of the individual. Unlike utilitarianism, what has value and must be respected is not the content (ability to suffer, rationality, etc.) of individuals but individuals themselves. Therefore, the issue of acting morally right cannot be solved just by eliminating pain; the inherent value of beings must be acknowledged. 

Similar ideas have also been developed by Christine Korsgaard (2007). Following a Kantian account, she presents a view that considers animals as holding inherent value. The difference between humans and animals is that the former has to face the problem of normativity, i.e. we have to consider reasons to act. This characteristic makes us moral agents. But this difference, Korsgaard argues, is irrelevant for leaving them outside our moral circle of concern. Although reason is one of the characteristics we morally value, there are many other relevant traits to consider. Those other characteristics are also part of our own animal nature and have an inherent value. The fact that we see them in other beings is enough reason to consider them when deciding how to act. By acknowledging an inherent value in other beings, animal rights theorists eliminate the limiting condition of suffering. Nevertheless, arbitrariness remains in assessing what traits they should have to be inherently valuable. Regan’s characterisation still shows signs of a minimum set of necessary features for being the bearers of moral status.

An Alternative View

An alternative view for thinking about animal moral treatment has been developed under the theory of virtue ethics, a position initially attributed to Aristotle. Rosalind Hursthouse (2012) and Mary Midgley (2007) hold this view and present strong reasons for getting rid of a foundational mistake in understanding animal ethics. The whole notion of a moral circle, and consequently of having a moral status, is mistaken. There is an insurmountable arbitrariness in selecting what characteristics should count for humans to include animals, and it is never absolutely clear nor agreed upon what nor why a trait x is the one that should morally count. The notion of moral status derived from it is superfluous as it highlights one specific characteristic (or set of characteristics) as relevant when many different traits are important under different circumstances. The fact that an animal can suffer means that we should consider that suffering; if it is self-conscious, we should not act demeaningly towards it, and so on. We disregard a complete array of potentially morally relevant characteristics by selecting one trait that makes a being suitable for moral consideration. Moral status should not determine our actions. But this begs the question: Why should I even consider this or that characteristic to decide what to do?

What we should follow, proponents of this view argue, are moral virtues. By acting in specific ways, we act benevolently, charitably, justly, etc. These virtues are examples of how we humans would like to live a life and act towards others. If we respect animals of any sort, it is not necessarily because they possess a specific valuable feature but because we believe that by respecting them, we are showing a praisable behaviour that we want to see replicated in others. This way of thinking about the animal problem allows us to apply our moral principles in a much larger array of cases than the ones selected by an arbitrary decision. It also helps us to be aware, at times, of our own hypocrisy if we care about suffering, but as long as we do not see it, we still accept it. It shows that in order to do the right thing, we do not just have to look outward and decide how to act; we should also look inward and see what kind of moral agents we are, and we want to be. This alternative view to animal ethics does not suffer from the immense difficulty of choosing a trait or set of traits that defines everything. It allows us to be more conscious of our role in decision-making, and it potentially eliminates further difficulties like the ones presented by artificial intelligence. If we keep looking outside for reasons to respect others, we might end up in a deforested world with half the number of species that we currently find on the planet. Instead, we should look at ourselves, look outside, and act in the best possible way according to the values we purportedly profess.

Fighting Animals as Allegory of the Combat between Virtue and Vice, Pieter Boel, ca. 1650 – 1667
Figure 5: "Fighting Animals as Allegory of the Combat between Virtue and Vice" (Boel, ca. 1650-1667).


It has been shown that utilitarianism and animal rights theory include animals within our moral circle by selecting specific characteristics: one focuses on suffering as the relevant trait, the other on being a subject-of-a-life, which includes a set of traits inherently valuable. But both these views need to justify these decisions by finding suitability in moral patients for attributing moral status. By doing this, these theories miss an important point of morality, i.e. that our decision-making is also influenced by our own views of the world.  When selecting an attribute to assign moral status, we are saying something about the objects of our actions and not about us as acting subjects. But the whole point of morality is as much about us as it is about others. We do not torture animals just because they can suffer; we do not do it also because we do not want to be a certain kind of person. Most of us would not do an action of the sort even if suffering was taken out of the equation, and that is because our actions are also determined by our vision of who we want to be. Adopting a position like virtue ethics will make us better understand our relationship with other people, animals, and ourselves. Instead of finding reasons outwardly about how to act, we should look inside, decide what type of world we would like to see and act accordingly. 

Bibliographical References

Anthis, J. R., & Paez, E. (2021). Moral circle expansion: A promising strategy to impact the Far Future. Futures, 130, 102756.  

Bentham, J. (1961). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Garden City: Doubleday. Originally published in 1789.

Gruen, L. (1993). Animals. In Singer, P. (ed.) A Companion to Ethics. Cambridge, Mass., USA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hursthouse, R. (2012). Virtue ethics and the treatment of animals. The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, 119–143. 

Korsgaard, C.M. (2009). Facing the Animal You See in the Mirror. The Harvard Review of Philosophy, 16, 4-9.

Matheny, G. (2006). Utilitarianism and Animals. In Singer, P. (ed.) In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.; 2006: 13-25.

Midgley, M. (2007). Animals and why they matter. The University of Georgia Press. 

Mill, J. S., (1861). Utilitarianism, Edited with an introduction by Roger Crisp. New York: Oxford University Press. (1998).

Rachels, J. (2006). Drawing Lines. In C. R. Sunstein & M. C. Nussbaum (Eds.), Animal rights: Current debates and New Directions (pp. 162–174). essay, Oxford University Press. 

Regan, T. (2017). The Case for Animal Rights. In S. J. Armstrong & R. G. Botzler (Eds.), The Animal Ethics Reader (pp. 55–62). essay, Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. 

Singer, P. (1990). Animal Liberation, Second edition, New York: New York Review of Books.

Singer, P. (2017). Practical Ethics. In S. J. Armstrong & R. G. Botzler (Eds.), The animal ethics reader (Third, pp. 75–87). essay, Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

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Vicente Rodriguez

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