Posted: March 26th, 2022
Ethics and morality have consistently been topics of concern in our society. Concerns about ethics and morality also extend to matters associated with the treatment of animals. The purpose of this discussion is to summarize and critique several different theories associated with the ethical treatment of animals. The discussion will focus on the treatment of animals as it relates to hunting and trapping animals, eating animals, using animals for research, and the manner in which domestic and wild animals are treated. The research will summarize and critique several theories including anthropocentrism, Animal liberation, Strong Animal Rights Theory, Weak (er) animal rights theory, Two-factor egalitarianism, biocentric egalitarianism, ecocentric views.
Anthropocentrism views human being as the center of the universe and regards the world from the point-of-view of human values and experiences (Dictionary).
According to the western philosopher Immanuel Kant human beings alone are rational beings and as such have intrinsic moral worth. Kant asserts that human beings do not owe animals anything because they are not rational beings. However, he does assert that people should be kind to animals but only because kindness to animals assists in developing character in human beings. In other words kindness to animals should not take place for the sake of the animal but for the betterment of the human being.
In addition to Kant, others have also embraced the theory of anthropocentrism. For instance, Guthrie also posits that ethics is a phenomenon that is unique to the human species. He argues that humans do not have a moral obligation to extend their codes of behavior to other species. Guthrie further asserts that extending a human moral code to include animals is illogical.
It appears that the Anthropocentrism theory asserts that because animals are not human they do not possess logic and as such they should not be treated in a manner that is logical or human. This theory also argues that if animals are treated kindly it is not for the benefit of the animal but the human being. The problem with this theory is that it does not suppose that logical human beings would have an obligation to treat animals kindly. This would be the case because logical human beings understand that animals are helpless and therefore need protection. This theory is also problematic because it does not thoroughly or succinctly explain the consequences to human being when other living things are not treated with some sort of respect or reverence. It does not consider the impact that the ill treatment of animals would ultimately have on the environment.
The theory of Animal liberation posits that non-human animals should be given the same consideration as humans as it relates to their right to live and be free of torment. Peter Singer is one of the major supporters of this theory. Singer asserted that suffering was suffering regardless of whom or what the recipient of the suffering was. Singer also asserted that the principle of equality (or equal consideration of interests) is the crux of Singer’s argument. It holds that all sentient creatures (he draws the “line” at the phylogenetic level of oysters) have the same stake in their own existence (“interests”). Singer argued that this principle leads to the conclusion that there is no basis for elevating the interests of one species, Homo sapiens, above any other. Differences in intelligence, race, and gender are not valid criteria to exploit other humans; to Singer, a creature’s species is equally irrelevant. He claimed that “From an ethical point-of-view, we all stand on an equal footing — whether we stand on two feet, or four, or none at all” (Singer, 1985, p.6; Herzog, 1990)
With these things being understood equal weight must be given to the suffering of any living thing (Callicot). According to Callicot those that practice this theory are usually vegetarians and are usually extremely adamant concerning their position.
Animal liberation is problematic because it makes no distinction between the needs of most non-human animals and human beings. However the primary theorist responsible for cultivating this philosophy does concede that the phylogenetic level of oysters are not to be considered. This view is logical at some external level, but when one truly evaluates this theory it becomes too broad and does not seem to recognize the importance of deferring to human logic as it relates to the ethical treatment of living beings. It also seems to ignore the fact that non-human animals do not have the logic to consider how human beings are being treated. As such — if humans allow them to — wild animals could perceive human beings as weak and began treating human beings as nothing more than prey.
Biocentric Egalitarianism also known as reverence for life, asserts that all living things are sacred and of value and as such every living organism should be treated kindly. According to Albert Schweitzer a proponent of this theory all living organisms have a will to live and this will should be considered in the manner in which human beings treat animals that may not have the capacity to articulate this will. Schweitzer also contends that human beings must have the same respect for other organisms will to live as we have for our own will to live. As a foundation the theory of Biocentric Egalitarianism is the idea that it is good to preserve life and evil to destroy life. Schweitzer further contends that man is only ethical when he understands the responsibility of helping all life.
At the current time this seems to be a very popular way of viewing ethical behavior towards animals. This view basically concedes that every living thing is a part of a family of living things and it is unfair for those that are part of the human species of this family to decide that the other living things do not have the right to live or should be treated poorly. The foundation of this theory relies heavily upon the idea that all living things have a will and as such have a desire to preserve life. One of the weaknesses of this theory is that it tends to conjure debates concerning what constitutes a living organism because it is not made explicitly clear. Another problem with this theory is that is assumes that the will that non-humans have is the same as the will that humans possess, which may or may not be true. For instance, it may be true that a female bear wants to protect the life of her cubs but it is also true that some animals will kill their young if they are deformed, and this behavior is considered completely appropriate and normal for non-human animals. However, human beings usually find this behavior disturbing. With this being understood non-human animals do not possess this reverence for life, as such putting them on equal standing with human beings seems inappropriate.
Weak Animal Rights Theory
The weak animal rights theory argues that any living organism that has the capacity to pursue certain satisfactions also has a right not to be forced to live without being able to pursue such satisfactions (Warren). This theory also argues that any living organism that has the capacity to feel pain and hurt should have the right to live without having pain or hurt inflicted upon it unless there is a persuasive reason to argue the contrary. The weak animal rights theory also contends that conscious organisms should not be killed without a justifiable reason (Warren). Finally the weak animal rights theory asserts that moral rights are not all inclusive. As such there are instances when the rights of a non-human organism can be overridden (Warren). These arguments would be dependent upon whether or not the being is conscious and the level of mental acuity.
The weak animal rights theory asserts that as a general rule living things that can pursue satisfaction and feel pain have a right to exist without being denied the ability to pursue satisfaction or have pain forced upon them. This theory contends that conscious living organisms should be allowed to live unless there is a good reason for them to die. This particular theory also makes concessions concerning the rights of non-human organisms under certain circumstances. This theory is impressive in that it is inclusive of the superiority of human logic to make the proper decisions concerning the welfare and ethical treatment of animals. The theory is problematic in that it does present specific scenarios that would allow the rights of animals to be compromised for the purpose of human benefit.
Strong Animal Rights Theory
Strong Animal rights theory asserts that that every normal mammal over a year of age has the same rights as human beings. That is all mammals have the same right to live or die as humans do. According to Mary Anne Warren there are three stages associated with the strong human rights theory. The first stage asserts that mature mammals are both conscious and also have other mental abilities (Warren). These abilities are inclusive of memory emotion, belief, desire, intentional actions and an awareness of the future. With these things being understood this theory asserts that mammals not only have physical bodies that are alive but they also function as psychological beings whose existence can get better or worse. Proponents of this theory argue that other mammals have this capacity even though they cannot use human language to articulate this capacity.
The second stage of this theory asserts that subjects of a life are independent of one another. This argument is used to refute the idea that utilitarianism which asserts that living things are only vessels of morally significant value (Warren). As such damage done to one living thing may be permissible because it may provide some benefit to other living things. This is that argument used to justify using animals for medical research. However this is an idea that is rejected by proponents of the strong animal rights theory because they assert that one living thing or a group of living things is not more valuable than an individual living thing (Warren).
The third stage of this theory has as its foundation the second stage of the theory which asserts that living things are not just vessels. The third stage of the theory asserts that because living things have inherent value they mustn’t be harmed. The third stage of the theory further asserts that there are moral rights attributed to things with inherent value. This means not only should living things not be harmed but human being should intervene or come to the assistance of other living organisms when they are in danger of being harmed (Warren).
This theory is problematic because it is inconsistent. If all things are individually valuable why is it wrong for a small percentage of those things to be sacrificed to assist a larger percentage of living things that may die if the smaller percentage is not sacrificed? Another problem with this theory is that it is only inclusive of mammals because this theory asserts that other mammals are the only species that posses the same inherent value as human beings. According to this theory birds, fish, plants and other living organisms should not be given the same consideration as mammals as it pertains to the manner in which they are treated. In addition the mammal has to be older than one year to possess these same rights. Does this mean that human beings under the age of one do not have a right to ethical Treatment?
Two Factor Egalitarianism
This theory argues that the issue of animal rights lies within the constructs of two principles represented by the letters a and B. A represents an animal that is less sophisticated on a psychological level (a rabbit) and B. represents the more psychology sophisticated animal (a human being) (Peffer). This theory asserts that it is morally permissible to forfeit the interest of a to encourage the similar interest of B. If a does not have the same psychological acuity that B. has (Peffer). In addition the theory asserts that it is morally permissible to sacrifice the basic interest of a to promote the serious interest of B. If a has a psychological capacity that is not comparable to B (Peffer). Finally this theory asserts that it is morally permissible to sacrifice the peripheral interest to promote the more basic interest if the organisms have similar psychological capacities (Peffer).
This particular theory purports that there are levels of significance as it relates to living organisms (Peffer). The measure of this significance is found if psychological the amount of psychological capacity that exist. Therefore the Two Factor Egalitarianism theory asserts that there is a moral weight assigned to living organisms that determines the manner in which they are treated.
As such the theory posits that it is completely understandable to sacrifice the moral rights of the species with less psychological capacity for the species with a greater psychological capacity. However, the ability to transcend these moral rights is contingent upon the interest of the species with greater psychological capacity. For instance it would be allowable for a human being (a) to kill the rabbit (B) if the human being needed food (Peffer). It is permissible because in this scenario the interest of the rabbit is basic but the interest of the human is serious. In essence this theory has as a foundation the issue of moral weight. The concept of moral weight is usually at the forefront of any debate concerning the treatment of animals.
Ecocentric views contend that the biosphere is finite and as such restrictions should be placed on continued technological and economic growth. An ecocentric theory makes no ontological distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘humanity’. This theory basically asserts that humans hold no more value than other living beings (Hettinger). Ecocentric views concerning the ethical treatment of animals assert that animals deserve the same consideration and treatment as human beings and as such they should not be subjected to pain or suffering for any reason not even for the benefit of human beings (Hettinger).
This particular theory does not believe that human beings are in anyway superior to other animals. As such it does not concede that human being have the right to preserve their existence if it results in the death or harm of some other type of living organism.
This particular view is problematic because if entire ecosystems are included it could also be inclusive of non-living entities. In addition such a theory could result in “philosophical foundations for the sacrifice of immediate human interests for the sake of some ‘more fundamental’ entity (Humphrey, 2002, pg 19).”
As such in some respect this theory could become dangerous if it was ever accepted and enforced on a large scale.
Opinion concerning ethical issues and the best theory to address these issues
As it relates to hunting and trapping animals I believe that hunting should only be allowed for the purposes of gathering food that is essential for human survival. There are people all over the world for whom hunting is a way of life and a livelihood; this is particularly true of indigenous people groups. Oddly enough, it is these indigenous groups that also seem to have the most respect for the earth and usually only take from the earth what is necessary for their survival; they tend not to exploit animals but instead live in harmony with them.
Hunting should not be permissible simply for sport, in my opinion this type of hunting causes undue or unnecessary harm to the animal. Hunting may also be permissible on occasions where overpopulation of an animal may threaten the ecosystem or endanger human beings. Such has been the case with large deer population and at times large populations of birds.
As far as trapping is concerned it should only be done if the animal may harm human beings or livestock. For instance, in certain areas of the country coyotes and wolves have been known to attack live stock. In these instances I believe it permissible to trap animals that jeopardize the livelihood of farmers or can do bodily harm to human beings.
As it relates to eating animals, it would seem permissible to me as this is the only way that many people in the world can acquire food — through the consumption of animal flesh. It would be insensitive of people that do not have to eat animals to survive to attempt to tell those who do have to eat animals to survive not to eat animals. Also because the definition of what constitutes an animal is so broad it could include everything from plants to birds.
I do believe that if an individual is opposed to eating animals they have a right not to but they should not be in opposition to the necessity or right of others to consume animals.
As it relates to using animals for the purpose of research, I am opposed to such research for cosmetic products or any other reason that is not a life and death situation. With this being understood, I do think that using animals for the purpose of medical research is necessary and morally permissible. Many drugs that have saved the lives of people would not be available today if they had not been tested on animals first. In these instances rats, mice, and monkeys have provided human beings with the ability to cure or treat illnesses that could be fatal. For this reason a great deal of the opposition to the use of animals in medical research has fallen on deaf ears. Although I am a proponent of using animals for the purpose of medical research I do believe they should not be handled in a way that is haphazard or causes them pain that is beyond that necessary for carrying out the research.
Finally, as it relates to the manner in which domestic and wild animals are treated, there must be standards associated with their treatment. As it relates to domestic animals there are many laws that govern their treatment and the responsibilities that owners have for their pets. As it relates to wild animals there is a definite need to have animals at zoos for the purpose of educating people. If an animal is near extinction people might have more compassion and a greater understanding of the plight of the animal if they were educated about their existence and why it needs to be preserved. Educating people may also challenge them to do what they can to preserve a particular species.
As with domestic animals there are rules a regulations that govern the treatment of animals at zoos and aquariums, these regulations should be adhered to and in some cases the laws need to be stronger.
As it pertains to animals that are used for the purposes of entertainment, I am opposed to such treatment. This opposition exists because this type of treatment of animals serves no benefit to those being entertained or to the animal. At least in an educational setting people learn things about the animal and the animals are in habitats that are similar to their own. However in an entertainment setting there is nothing to be gained by the human being that is entertained or the animal that is the source of such entertainment.
Overall I believe that my viewpoint concerning the ethical treatment of animals is a combination of the weak animal rights theory and two factor egalitarianism. I believe that the combination of these theories is most logical because it weighs both sides of the animal rights issue; it takes into consideration the right of every conscious animal to pursue satisfaction without man-made hindrances and to not have pain forced upon them. However, this theory also takes into consideration the rights and needs of human beings as superior to other organisms. As such the combined theory provides the balance that is often needed when the ethical treatment of animals is discussed. The combination of these theories posits that conscious living things do have rights but these rights are not absolute and do not supersede the right of human beings to preserve their own lives even if a non-human organism must be sacrificed to guarantee such preservation.
The purpose of this discussion was to summarize and critique several different theories associated with the ethical treatment of animals including anthropocentrism, Animal liberation, Strong Animal Rights Theory, Weak (er) animal rights theory, Two-factor egalitarianism, biocentric egalitarianism, ecocentric views. The summary and critique suggest that many of these theories present valid concerns while other fall short of the development of a theory that actually weighs both sides of the issue. Many of the theories represent extremes that are neither possible nor practical.
The discussion also focus on my personal beliefs concerning the treatment of animals as it relates to hunting and trapping animals, eating animals, using animals for research, and the manner in which domestic and wild animals are treated. Overall I discussed the need for balance as it relates to the treatment of animals. I conceded that animals should not be exploited for the purposes of entertainment or sport. However, I also concede that it is permissible to sacrifice non-human animals to preserve the life of human beings. I also found that these views encompass a combination of the weak animal rights theory and two factor egalitarianism.
Callicot J.B. Animal Liberation: A triangular affair. Environmental Ethics Vol. 2(4) 1980. 511-538
Callicot J.B. In Defense of the Land Ethic. State University Press: New York.
Guthrie R.D., the Ethical relationship between humans and other organisms. Perspectives from Biology and Medicine.
Hettinger, Ned. Valuing Predation is Rolstons Environmental Ethics: Bambi Lovers and Tree Huggers. Environmental Ethics. Vol. 16, 1994
Herzog a. (1990) Discussing Animal Rights and Animal Research in the Classroom. Teaching of Psychology. Volume: 17 (2). Page Number: 91.
Preservation vs. The People? Nature, Humanity and Political Philosophy. Contributors: Humphrey M. (2002) Oxford University Press. Place of Publication: Oxford, England.
Kant, Immanuel. (1873) Kant’s Foundations of Metaphysical Morals. Rational being alone have moral worth. Translated by T.K. Albott
Peffer, R.G. An analysis of Donald Van Deveer’s Two Factor Egalitarianism.
Singer, P. (1975). Animal liberation. New York: Avon.
Singer, P. (1985). “Prologue: Ethics and the new animal liberation movement.” In P. Singer (Ed.), in defense of animals (pp. 1-10). Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.
Warren. M.A. A Critique of Regan’s Animal Rights Theory. Environmental Ethics. Prentice Hall: New Jersey.
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