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Ethical Treatment of Animals (July 2015): Philosophy

By Walter Hogan and Eric Owen


After four decades of scholarship, many of the contemporary books on animal ethics now blend or introduce variations on the somewhat single-minded manifestos that introduced utilitarian and rights-based approaches in the 1970s and 1980s.  In Animal Rights and Moral Philosophy, Julian Franklin extends to animals certain protections that Kant had developed for humans.  Personhood, Ethics, and Animal Cognition: Situating Animals in Hare’s Two Level Utilitarianism by Gary Varner draws on a particular strain of utilitarian theory to adjust and strengthen the case for animal protection made famous by Peter Singer.  Varner distinguishes persons, near-persons, and merely sentient beings, arguing that certain animals (great apes, cetaceans, elephants, and corvids) should be considered near-persons and afforded considerable respect.  Martha Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership seeks to extend Rawlsian social contract theory to animals by marrying it to the capabilities approach of Amartya Sen.  Nussbaum sees animals as a special category somewhat comparable to severely disabled and/or impoverished humans, with each needing accommodation according to their capabilities, as a matter of fundamental justice.

In Animal Ethics in Context, Clare Palmer notes that animal ethics seems most concerned with negative responsibilities not to harm animals.  Employing the capabilities approach also favored by Nussbaum, Palmer distinguishes responsibilities for domesticated animals in people’s care from lesser duties toward wild animals.  Palmer strives to avoid the usual polar opposition between environmentalists and animal rights advocates.  Tzachi Zamir’s Ethics and the Beast: A Speciesist Argument for Animal Liberation argues that it is not necessary to adopt a strident animal rights position (such as claiming that “speciesism” is comparable to racism) in order to conclude that factory farming and many other animal exploitation practices are wrong.

Among book-length studies of animal ethics by academic philosophers, a few are exceptionally approachable for nonphilosophy majors.  Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals, by Jean Kazez, is enjoyable to read because of the author’s engaging style and open-minded consideration of diverse perspectives on the key issues of human-animal relations.  Tony Milligan’s Beyond Animal Rights: Food, Pets and Ethics is also well-suited to undergraduates.  Milligan, who prefers a pluralistic approach, devotes five chapters to meat eating, with just one chapter each on companion animals and experimentation.  The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? by Gary Francione and Robert Garner makes a unique contribution.  Legal scholar Francione leads off with a defense of the animal rights position, calling for strict veganism and the end to nearly all animal use practices.  Political theorist Garner argues that abolition is unrealistic, and urges continued advocacy in social and political arenas.  The final section of the book features an extensive back-and-forth discussion between the two authors.

Works Cited