animals and philosophy

The purpose of this website is to provide individuals with an introduction to Animal Ethics and Philosophy, specifically, the different ethical frameworks one might embrace when promoting an animal liberation ethic.

Ethical Theory, also referred to as normative ethics, is the branch of ethics that is concerned with determining how one ought to act. Many of these theories, like deontology and utilitarianism, offer one overarching moral principle or criterion of moral conduct that moral agents can appeal to in moral decision-making. The three dominant ethical theories in the contemporary discourse concerning normative ethics are the following : (1) virtue based theories, (2) consequential theories, and (3) duty-based theories (for more information, visit the Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s discussion of Ethics).

It is important to note that one should investigate the subject matter of Ethical Theory before engaging in discussions concerning applied issues within ethics (such as abortion, euthanasia, punishment, animal ethics, environmental ethics, and so forth). This is because one should first investigate competing ethical theories in order to embrace a solid foundation of ethics. After one has come to defend a particular position regarding what she believes the goal of morality to be, she should then apply this ethical framework to applied issues in order to approach particular moral issues in a consistent fashion. For instance, if one thinks that the goal of morality is to maximize happiness in the world, then she should apply utilitarian principles to all applied issues (for instance, she shouldn’t argue in support of the view of “maximizing consequences” for nonhuman animals, while then advocating to “protect the rights of all human beings”– note that Robert Nozick actually supports this position –“utilitarianism for animals; kantianism for humans”– but it is a very confused, morally inconsistent position to endorse). On the other hand, if one believes that the point of morality is to develop one’s character, then she should apply the principles of virtue ethics to every applied issue. What one should not do is decide where she stands on abortion, and then come to endorse a theory just because it has anti-abortion conclusions. This is what I refer to as the “backwards way of doing ethics.” One needs to start by taking serious the question of what the goal of morality is before she approaches particular moral issues, such as abortion.

Many times, individuals jump into discussions about applied ethics without first developing a solid ethical framework. This leads to inconsistent and unreflective conclusions about applied issues. For instance, some argue that capital punishment is permissible, but abortion is impermissible. When asked why they endorse these two conclusions, many individuals are unable to express what ethical principle entails the conclusion that: (1) capital punishment is permissible, but (2) abortion is impermissible. For instance, one might attempt to justify her claim that abortion is impermissible because she believes that all human beings have a right to respectful treatment. But then she must also explain why it is acceptable to kill a human being who is convicted of a crime, since that individual, who is a human being, also has a right to respectful treatment. Many times individuals, after significant reflection, will come to conclude that capital punishment violates the right to respectful treatment, and thus they will admit that they held morally inconsistent positions because they did not consistently apply the  principles of one ethical theory to both the moral issue of abortion and the moral issue of capital punishment (to see an essay that nicely describes how to consistently apply deontological principles to two different applied issues, see Abbate’s article Adventures in Moral Consistency: How to Derive an Abortion Ethic from an Animal Rights Framework).

Keeping this discussion in mind, before one approaches the issue of animal ethics, one should have reflected upon ethical theory and, after doing so, she should be able to provide justification for and reasons to support the particular ethical theory that she believes embodies the goal of morality. She should then consistently apply the principles of said theory to the issue of animal ethics.

Through this website, you will be introduced to the main ethical approaches to animal ethics. You will read about how different animal ethicists use deontological principles, consequentialist principles, virtue ethics principles, contractarian principles, care ethics principles, theological principles, and so forth to promote an animal liberation ethic. Sometimes, many of these ethicists will derive similar conclusions, but it is important to note that how they arrive at these conclusions differ (often significantly).

For example, every animal ethicist whose view is discussed on this page will endorse the following claim: factory farming is wrong. This is because you
will be hard pressed to find an ethical theory that would refute this statement. The principle that tells us to maximize happiness (or preferences), the principle that tells us to respect the rights of individuals, the principle that tells us to act like a virtuous person, and the principle that tells us to care for and/or assist other vulnerable beings ALL yield the some conclusion regarding the moral permissibility of factory farming: the practice of factory farming is wrong (because it decreases happiness/preferences according to utilitarianism, it violates the rights of animals according to an animal rights theory, and a virtuous person would not inflict such a significant amount of pain upon sentient beings for mere gustatory pleasure according to virtue ethics).

Although there is widespread agreement about the ethics of factory farming in the animal liberation discourse, some theories of animal liberation will come to different conclusions depending on the particular moral issue that is under discussion. For instance, a utilitarian would argue that we should torture a nonhuman animal, such as circus animals, if doing so would maximize happiness in the world. An animal rights position would vehemently disagree with this conclusion, since this theory maintains that nonhuman animals have the right to respectful treatment, which entails that they should never be used as a tool for social utility, regardless of how good the benefits might be.

While this website provides a brief overview of some of the different animal liberation frameworks, you should remember that the discourse within animal ethics is incredibly rich. In order to develop your own position on animal liberation (and ethics in general), you should make use of the embedded links throughout this website which will direct you to articles that are available online (most of the articles can be accessed for free; if they are not free, I encourage you to e-mail the author since he/she most likely will e-mail a copy to you).


If you have any suggestions, corrections, or would like to contribute to this website, please contact the site manager: Cheryl E Abbate; cheryl.abbate@marquette.edu