Animal Rights and Welfare

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Although all the major moral philosophers in the Western tradition have had something to say about the moral status of animals, they have commented infrequently and for the most part only in brief. This tradition of neglect changed dramatically during the last quarter of the twentieth century, when dozens of works in ethical theory, hundreds of professional essays, and more than a score of academic conferences were devoted to the moral foundations of human treatment of nonhuman animals.

Two main alternativesanimal welfare and animal rightshave come to be recognized. Animal welfarists accept the permissibility of human use of nonhuman animals as a food source and in biomedical research, for example, provided such use is carried out humanely. Animal rightists, by contrast, deny the permissibility of such use, however humanely it is done.

Differ though they do, both positions have much in common. For example, both reject Descartes's view that nonhuman animals are automata. Those animals raised for food and hunted in the wild have a subjective presence in the world; in addition to sharing sensory capacities with human beings, they experience pleasure and pain, satisfaction and frustration, and a variety of other mental states. There is a growing consensus that many nonhuman animals have a mind that, in Charles Darwin's words, differs from the human "in degree and not in kind."

Proponents of animal welfare and animal rights have different views about the moral significance of human psychological kinship with other animals. Animal welfarists have two options. First, they can argue that we ought to treat animals humanely because this will lead us to treat one another with greater kindness and less cruelty. On this view we have no duties to animals, only duties involving them; and all those duties involving them turn out to be, as Kant wrote, "indirect duties to Mankind" (Immanuel Kant, "Duties to Animals," in Regan and Singer, 1991, p. 23). Theorists as diverse as Kant, St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Rawls favor an indirect-duty account of the moral status of nonhuman animals.

Second, animal welfarists can maintain that some of our duties are owed directly to animals. This is the alternative favored by utilitarians, beginning with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and culminating in the work of Peter Singer (1990). Animal pain and pleasure count morally in their own right, not only indirectly through the filter of the human interest in having humans treated better. The duty not to cause animals to suffer unnecessarily is a duty owed directly to animals.

Of the two options the latter seems the more reasonable. It is difficult to understand why the suffering of animals should count morally only if it leads to human suffering in the future. Imagine that a man sadistically tortures a dog and dies of a heart attack as a result of his physical exertion; what he does seems clearly wrong even though he does not live long enough to mistreat a human being. If this is true, then we have at least some direct duties to animals.

Animal welfarists who are utilitarians (Singer is the most notable example) use utilitarian theory to criticize how animals are treated in contemporary industries (animal agriculture and biomedical research, for example). For in these industries animals are made to suffer and, Singer alleges, to suffer unnecessarily.

Other animal welfarists who are utilitarians disagree. Government and industry leaders agree that some animals sometimes suffer in the course of being raised for food or used in biomedical research; but they deny that they are made to suffer unnecessarily.

Consider organ transplant research. Research on animals in this quarter involves transplanting some internal organ from one healthy animal to another; the "donor" animal, who is under anesthetic, is killed, but the "receiver" animal is permitted to recover and doubtless experiences no small amount of postoperative pain before being humanely killed.

Is the pain unnecessary? In one sense it clearly is. For since the organ was not transplanted for the good of the recipient animal, all the pain that animal experienced was unnecessary. However, this is not the real question, given the utilitarian perspective. The pain caused to this particular animal is only one part of the overall calculation that needs to be carried out. One also needs to ask about the possible benefits for humans who are in need of organ transplants, the value of the skills surgeons acquire carrying out animal organ transplants, the value of knowledge for its own sake, and so on. After these questions have been answered and the overall benefits impartially calculated, then an informed judgment can be made about whether organ transplant research involving nonhuman animals does or does not cause unnecessary suffering.

As this example illustrates, animal welfarists who are utilitarians can disagree about when animals suffer unnecessarily. As such, these animal welfarists can differ in judging whether animals are being treated humanely and, if not, how much reform is called for.

Advocates of animal rights advance a position that avoids the always daunting, frequently divisive challenge of carrying out uncertain utilitarian calculations. Central to their view is the Kantian idea that animals are never to be treated merely as a means to human ends, however good these ends might be. The acquisition of knowledge, including biological knowledge, is surely a good end, as is the promotion of human health. But the goodness of these ends does not justify the utilization of nonhuman animals as means. Thus, even if animal-model organ transplant research can be justified on utilitarian grounds, animal rights advocates would judge it immoral.

Of the two main optionsanimal welfare and animal rightsit is the latter that attempts to offer a basis for a radical reassessment of how animals are treated. Animal welfare, provided the calculations work out a certain way, enables one to call for reforms in human institutions that routinely utilize nonhuman animals. But animal rights, independent of such calculations, enables one to call for the abolition of all forms of institutional exploitation.

However these matters are resolved, one should note the major contribution philosophers have made in placing the "animal question" before a wider audience. Despite their philosophical differences, none of the philosophers participating in the debate is satisfied with how animals are treated by the major animal user industries. This consensus has meant that those who manage these industries have had to respond to new forms of moral criticism. Collectively, these philosophers have been and will continue to be a powerful voice calling for better treatment of animals.

In addition, the interest philosophers have shown in the "animal question" has spilled over into other disciplines, including sociology, history, anthropology, and law. The latter is of particular interest. Whereas thirty years ago not a single law school in America offered courses on animals and the law, upwards of thirty do so today. The evidence suggests that a new field of inquiry, Human and Animal Studies, is in the offing.

See also Darwin, Charles Robert; Descartes, René; Speciesism; Utilitarianism.


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Tom Regan (1996, 2005)