Posted: March 18th, 2023
Ethical Treatment of Animals
The way we treat animals says a lot about our moral character. The issue of the ethical treatment of animals is an important one and also one that many people are passionate about because it gives a voice to animals who are not capable of speaking for themselves. It is noble and right to be for the ethical treatment of animals. Why is it noble and right? Because, from a purely logical perspective, we are all fellow creatures; we are all lives living on this planet. Most of us would not harm a human on purpose, so we should not think that it is okay to harm an animal. In looking at animals as fellow creatures, we can recognize that it is a common life that we share (Gruen 2011). Though there are many who passionately and emotionally advocate for the ethical treatment of animals, it is not enough to merely be emotional; one must also understand why it is not just an emotional issue but why it is one that needs attention: because it is not ethical to treat animals badly when we consider them as fellow creatures sharing a world with us. Merely questioning the problem and asking one’s self why they believe in the ethical treatment of animals makes the issue one that is subject to reasoning as opposed to emotion. In his book Animal Ethics, author Robert Garner (2005) says that, “Animal ethics seeks to examine beliefs that are held about the moral status of non-human animals.” Animal ethics can also be defined more generally by acknowledging that animal ethics is about acting for the moral good of animals by understanding animal-human moral issues through knowledge and cognitive reasoning. The issue is one of right conduct and the nature and justification of principles of behavior. This is what virtue ethics is all about. Virtue is a disposition to behave ethically. An understanding of virtue ethics can help one understand how it is to behave ethically and can also help ease the confusion between the idea that to be virtuous is to be an extremist.
What is acting ethically when it comes to animal treatment? Most people would probably say that torturing animals is wrong. To think of a pack of small boys hitting a frog with sticks or plucking feathers from a downed bird would probably spark some kind of anger in us. We would know instantly that this kind of behavior is wrong and that these boys must be stopped and taught that this is wrong. There are also many people who would agree that randomly murdering animals is wrong, yet they will defend hunting and fishing; they will call it sport (Hursthouse 2000). Yet, though sitting in a tree waiting for a deer to come by so they can shoot at it is sport, they may think that taking a machine gun and blasting a pack of deer because they feel like it is wrong. The point is that there are justifications that people give to actions and there are people out there that believe that only some of the treatment of animals is ethically wrong. Does this make the people who hunt less virtuous? What is the distinction then between when it is okay to harm an animal and when it is not?
Virtue ethics makes a distinction between virtues and vice; that is, the qualities that make someone a good person who behaves rightly and the qualities that make someone a bad person who behaves badly. Aristotle is the ancient philosopher believed to be the main theorist behind virtue ethics. He believed that virtue is the middle road between two vices, the middle of two spectrums — for example, courage is superior to fearlessness or cowardice (Animal ethics 2011). While later ethical theories (mainly ones with God at the forefront) took over the popularity of virtue ethics, virtue ethics theories came back in the 20th century and made it more modern (2008). The modern tradition of virtue ethics says that people should be virtuous in all aspects of their lives and this means that they must be a good person always, which means always considering what is the right thing to do.
Virtue ethics can be thought of as an ethical way of being that requires thought and consideration. Just because virtue ethics tells us that we should consider something (for example, to stop the pack of boys from hurting the frog or the bird), it doesn’t always mean that our moral decisions will be easy. Can we still be kind people and eat meat? Can we still be compassionate people and wear leather shoes? Yes, because a virtuous person does things for certain reasons or motives and just because one is virtuous doesn’t mean that he or she will become an extremist. One can, for example, eat meat, but she might decide that she will only eat locally raised or cage-free animals. Someone might decide to not wear fur because he or she didn’t know where it came from or how the animal was killed. If one is to become extreme — in any form of their ethics — then they are acting out of ways they think they should act because of guilt of moral obligations; this is not virtue ethics. Yet, it needs to be recognized that there are many virtuous people out there who enjoy a burger once in a while. These are the same people who devote their Saturdays to volunteering at the dog rescue. Virtue ethics cannot be seen as black and white. One of the main problems with virtue ethics, for many critics of it, is that different people think of different things as virtues and different things as vices. A person may believe that fighting a bull in a ring is not wrong because the bull has just as much of a chance to hurt the matador. In fact, in Spain, there is a lot of respect for the bull. He is seen as a symbol of power and courage. While some people may consider this sport to be symbolic and quite meaningful for the bull and matador, others may think it is cruel. When one contemplates both sides, it isn’t too difficult to see both points to each side.
To be a certain kind of person, to be honest, generous, compassionate and sensitive does not just mean that we will act in certain ways, but we will also feel in certain ways (Hursthouse 2000). One isn’t just affected by how she or he acts, but how other people act as well. So, using the example above: If I believe that it is wrong to put a bull in a ring and taunt it, then I can’t help feeling anger over the whole thing. I choose not to be a matador, but it doesn’t mean that I am not going to feel like this sport is unjust. This means that my compassionate side feels for the bull and respects his life as important. Still, the matador would probably say that he respects that bull’s life as well — and maybe even more so.
Virtue ethics holds that one must act how a virtuous person would act and that one “cannot isolate the making of ethical decisions from your personality” (Panaman 2008.) a person who has good character will act accordingly. Good character can be defined (though is not limited to) qualities such as compassion, kindness, respect, toleration, courage, and honesty (2008). When one possesses these types of qualities, one is thus thought to be a virtuous person. More pointedly, a kind person can be relied on to behave in a kind way when a situation requires it. A person who has the virtue of kindness doesn’t act kindly out of some non-rational habit such as instinct — like a lioness defending her cubs (McDowell 1997). Instead, that the situation requires a certain type of behavior is the reason for behaving in a certain way. That being said, it must be something that he is aware of. Therefore, this means that there is a certain amount of logic put into virtue ethics. For me to get angry and emotional at any talk of any sport is me being a lioness defending all the animals of the world; there is not thought put into it and this is not virtue ethics then.
There are some virtue theorists that have argued that hurting animals is wrong, not because it’s a violation of the animals rights or because, on balance, such an act creates more suffering than other acts. Instead, in using them in ways that hurt them, we ourselves display moral failings that reflect poorly on us as ethical agents (Gruen 2011). The traits — traits such as kindness, compassion, sensitivity, etc. — are what should be shown in our dealings with all creatures — whether they are human or non-human.
When it comes to the issues of the ethical treatment of animals, virtue ethics can support ethical treatment because it forces people to ask: How will my actions support being a virtuous person? The morally right action comes from doing what one believes a virtuous person would do as opposed to other ethical theories that might make one do something out of obligation or duty, or what will get the best results (Panaman 2008). The main concern in virtue ethics becomes about a person’s moral character. When people choose to develop their moral character, better virtues will be created, and thus there will be more people acting in virtuous ways in all aspects of their lives — and this includes how they treat all animals.
One example to be considered when thinking about how a person with a strong sense of virtue might behave is to counter it with how a person with a strong sense of duty might behave. From a duty sense, if one were a livestock farmer, he or she might believe that his or her duty lies in what is best for the people because, after all, the job is about raising livestock for slaughter, which will then become food for people. Therefore, the first duty would be to humans and the second duty to animals (Panaman 20008) (which may entail being as good to the animals as possible while they are in his or her care on the farm — i.e., not allowing torture, giving them adequate living space, feeding them food that is good for them, etc.). With virtue ethics, however, one will apply reason, experience and logic as well as emotional abilities like beliefs, faith, etc. In order to act how a virtuous person should act (Panaman 2008). A person who believes in virtue ethics would think that as a person one should be kind and compassionate to all living things. Therefore, one should not cause the suffering of animals. As a livestock farmer, the person could perhaps find that he or she is in the wrong profession as it goes against what he or she believes is virtuous and right. On the other hand, there are plenty of virtue ethicists who would say that a livestock farmer can be virtuous and display virtue ethics characteristics depending on where his motive is coming from.
Rosalind Hursthouse is a virtue ethicist who believes that virtue ethics precludes any practices that favors the harming of animals, no matter what. She discusses her recognition of alternative ways to see animals:
I began to see [my attitude] that related to my conception of flesh-foods as unnecessary, greedy, self-indulgent, childish, my attitude to shopping and cooking in order to produce lavish dinner parties as parochial, gross, even dissolute. I saw my interest and delight in nature programs about the lives of animals on television and my enjoyment of meat as side by side at odds with one anotherâ€¦ Without thinking animals had rights, I began to see both the wild ones and the ones we usually eat as having lives of their own, which they should be left to enjoy. And so I changed. My perception of the moral landscape and where I and the other animals were situation in it shifted (Gruen 2011).
Virtue ethics could encourage the more ethical treatment of animals because it forces one to think in terms of kindness, compassion, and fairness. It doesn’t bring up issues such as duty or what is better for the most people. Surely if one were to look at the issue of the ethical treatment of animals from a virtue ethics perspective, any sort of unfair or unethical treatment would be considered morally and ethically wrong. A virtue ethics perspective forces us to rethink our relationships with other animals and start to understand that our conceptions of our selves is inextricably linked to our thinking and actions toward them (Gruen 2011). In re-thinking the way that we look at animals, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we must take an extremist approach.
Ethical relativism holds that there are not any moral truths; that is, all ethical viewpoints are equally valid and the individual is the only one who can determine what is true and relative for him or her. Moral relativism is not uncommon. People often say just because that’s right for them doesn’t make it right for me, but they may still hold that the viewpoint is valid. Ethical egoism holds that people are generally selfish; that it, each person has one ultimate aim: his or her own welfare. Ethical emotivism, on the other hand, more of a meta-ethical theory, argues that a moral claim (This is not moral or That is moral) isn’t a statement about the action itself or about the person saying it. it’s merely a raw expression of emotion — just like an emotional reaction to pain (e.g., a scream, a cry, etc.).
When it comes to the ethical treatment of animals, ethical emotivism is the theory that is often used to prevent the unethical treatment of animals. C.L. Stevenson (1944) who wrote the book Ethics and Language argued that these moral statements aren’t just expressions of emotion but they are attempts to get other people to share the same emotional reaction that a person is having. When animal activists use images of animals being tested on, slaughtered animals, or images of the consequences of dog fighting, they are trying to get others to react in horror at the images that elicited that horrific response in them.
In dealing with the issue of the ethical treatment of animals, there are some who take an ethical relativism approach; that is, there are some who choose to eat meat, wear leather shoes, and buy products that have knowingly been tested on animals. They may believe that these things are common in our society and if others don’t like it, well, they don’t have to do it. That is, I may not want to eat meat, but that doesn’t mean that I think it is wrong for you to eat meat. I choose to wear leather shoes and carry a leather purse or wear furs, but that doesn’t mean that I think if others don’t want to it is silly. It is all relative. Some may take an ethical egoism approach and decide that their enjoyment of life is more important than the ethical treatment of animals.
Virtue ethics has been called a rather loose tradition of ethical thinking (Rowlands 2009). Virtues are thought to be things that stay in someone over time. If I am honest, I will always be honest and in every situation. I will admire honesty in others and make it a priority for myself. Virtue ethics has many different perspectives, depending on who is talking about it. There are some theorists who say that if you are virtuous, then you cannot eat animals, wear fur, or hunt for sport — like Hursthouse. There are others, however, that say that these things are okay if you are a virtue ethicist. It all depends on the persons motives engaged in those things. If I don’t believe in bull-fighting because I think it is cruel, I don’t have to watch because I would feel my virtue of compassion coming out. However, is the bull-fighting exhibiting a vice? Is he exhibiting sadism? Probably not; so for the bull-fighter, he is also acting as he believes is virtuous. Still, one could argue that watching a bull-fight is to exhibit the vice of callousness because they are not the ones taking part in the actual sport, but actually just watching a bull being murdered.
Hursthouse is of the perspective that virtue will always win when there is any debate or conflict between virtue and vice. For example, if the matador insists that the rush of adrenaline and fun in the sport is a bigger feeling that callousness, then acting out of fun isn’t as bad as acting out of callousness; however, Hursthouse would say that virtues will always trump things that are not virtues (Rowlands 2009). Still, others may find courage to be a virtue and this is definitely something that the matador needs — so we come back to the conflict.
I argue that virtue ethics isn’t black or white and it isn’t about extremism. A livestock farmer can still be a virtuous person though he is responsible for slaughtering livestock. He would still not tolerate boys poking a frog for fun. My virtues are my virtues and I act accordingly and I feel according to them. Another will possess other virtues and act and feel according to them. However, in general, it is good and right to support the ethical treatment of all creatures — human and non-human.
Garner, R. (2005). Animal ethics. Cambridge: Polity.
Gruen, L. (2011). Ethics and animals: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press;
Hursthouse, R. (2000). Ethics, humans and other animals: An introduction with readings. New York: Routledge.
McDowell, J. (1997) in Roger Crisp & Michael Slote eds. Virtue ethics. Oxford: Oxford
Panaman, R. (2008). “How to do animal rights — and win the war on animals. Animal ethics.org. “Chapter 2: Know your animal ethics & animal rights.” Accessed on March
20, 2011: http://www.animalethics.org.uk/i-ch2-1-animalethics.html
Rowlands, M. (2009). Animal rights: Moral theory and practice. Hampshire: Palgrave
Macmillan; Second Edition.
Stevenson, C.L. (1944). Ethics and language. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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