Work in animal ethics explores both theoretical questions about the basis of moral consideration for animals and what (if anything) we owe them, as well as practical issues relating to how we should treat them. The term “animal” technically refers to all members of the kingdom Animalia, which includes organisms with complex nervous systems such as mammals, birds, herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians), and fishes but also includes many with simple nervous systems such as barnacles and nematodes. However, most of the literature in animal ethics, and the references cited in this article, focus on animals that are believed to be sentient: that is, they can have subjective experiences and lead a life that can go better or worse for them experientially. Almost everyone agrees that mammals and birds are sentient, and many argue that herpetofauna and fish are also sentient, but few claim that barnacles and nematodes are sentient. Sentience is commonly claimed to give animals moral standing because, as subjects of conscious experiences, things matter to them. As Peter Singer put it in his landmark 1975 book Animal Liberation, if a being can experience suffering or enjoyment, then it can be harmed and benefited in morally significant ways. Since the 1970s, animal ethics has expanded in many different directions. First, it has become much more deeply informed by scientific work on animal behavior and cognition. This has helped in understanding both what matters to animals and in considering what might matter about them. Second, different theoretical positions in animal ethics have been carefully worked out, including utilitarianism and rights views, which dominated much of the early discussion but also alternative approaches such as contract theory and ethics of care. Third, alongside general discussions of animals’ moral significance, there has been much deeper ethical exploration of different contexts in which humans encounter or live with animals such as in the wild, in agriculture, in zoos, as companions, or in laboratories. These different contexts have raised more practical, applied ethical questions. This article introduces some of the most important work in terms of the science influencing animal ethics, different theoretical approaches to animal ethics, and debates about what we owe to animals in different contexts.
Each of the works listed in this section provides a general introduction to animal ethics. Singer 1975 largely kicked off contemporary work in animal ethics by focusing on animal suffering in research and agriculture, while leaving complex theoretical issues in the background. Midgley 1983 is another influential early work defending the view that animals matter ethically but without taking sides on major theoretical issues. DeGrazia 2002, Garner 2005, Gruen 2011, Taylor 2009, and Wilson n.d. each provide general overviews of various theoretical issues relating to the moral status of animals and to different theoretical approaches to animal ethics.
DeGrazia, David. 2002. Animal rights: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
DeGrazia’s Animal Rights, like other books in Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series, introduces complex ideas to a general audience. DeGrazia uses short case studies to contextualize discussions of key philosophical ideas such as “animal rights” and “moral status.” In its compact 116 pages, the book includes an overview of different species’ cognitive capacities, considers whether confinement and killing harms animals, and explores the ethics of animal research, agriculture, and zoos.
Garner, Robert. 2005. Animal ethics. London: Polity.
Provides a clear overview of central issues in animal ethics, including animals’ moral status, different theoretical approaches to animal ethics, and more practical concerns such as eating meat, animal experimentation, zoos, and keeping pets.
Gruen, Lori. 2011. Ethics and animals: An introduction. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Gruen’s book, aimed at students and interested general readers, introduces different theoretical positions in animal ethics and gives useful accounts of important terminology. Each chapter opens with an engaging vignette that leads into a discussion of ethical issues. Issues discussed include experimenting on animals, eating animals, and keeping animals in captivity.
Midgley, Mary. 1983. Animals and why they matter. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press.
Midgley’s book is an early (and still highly readable) classic text in animal ethics. Midgley entertainingly but devastatingly dismantles many widespread and frequently sloppy claims about animals’ moral insignificance. While not advocating moral equality between human and animals, she maintains that animals are intelligent, feeling beings whose lives and well-being should be taken seriously.
Singer, Peter. 1975. Animal liberation. New York: Random House.
This classic book is often regarded as the foundational text of the modern animal liberation movement, although in it Singer intentionally left the theoretical issues emphasized in subsequent philosophical work in the background. The book combines hard-hitting accounts of animal suffering in farms, slaughterhouses, and laboratories with ethical arguments that such treatment is “speciesist”—discriminating without good reason on the basis of species membership. A fourth edition was published in 2009.
Taylor, Angus. 2009. Animals and ethics: An overview of the philosophical debate. 3d ed. Ontario, Canada: Broadview.
An accessibly written and comprehensive overview of philosophers’ discussions of animal ethics within the rights, utilitarian, contractarian, feminist, and virtue ethics traditions. Separate chapters focus on historically influential views on the moral status of animals, Regan’s rights view, eating animals, scientific research, environmentalism, and animal activism. First published in 1999 as Magpies, Monkeys, and Morals, the current title was adopted in 2003.
Wilson, Scott D. n.d. Animal ethics. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Wilson’s online article focuses on different theories about animals’ moral status. He considers three kinds of theoretical approaches: theories on which animals matter only indirectly inasmuch as they matter to people; theories where, because they are sentient, animals matter directly but significantly less than people; and theories where sentient animals have broad equality with people, in terms of (for instance) possessing basic rights.
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