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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
- Acid Deposition
- Agrochemical Pollutants
- Agroforestry Systems
- Applied Fluvial Ecohydraulic
- Arid Environments
- Arsenic Contamination in South and Southeast Asia
- Beavers as Agents of Landscape Change
- Berry, Wendell
- Burroughs, John
- Bush Encroachment
- Carbon Dynamics
- Carson, Rachel
- Case Studies in Groundwater Contaminant Fate and Transport
- Climate Change and Conflict in Northern Africa
- Common Pool Resources
- Contaminant Dispersal in the Environment
- Coral Reefs and Coral Bleaching
- Deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia
- Desert Dust in the Atmosphere
- Determinism, Environmental
- Ecological Integrity
- Economic Valuation Methods for Non-market Goods or Service...
- Economics, Environmental
- Economics of International Environmental Agreements
- Economics of Water Management
- Effects of Land Use
- Endocrine Disruptors
- Endocrinology, Environmental
- Engineering, Environmental
- Environmental Assessment
- Environmental Flows
- Environmental Law
- Environmental Sociology
- Ethics, Animal
- Ethics, Environmental
- European Union and Environmental Policy, The
- Extreme Weather and Climate
- Feedback Dynamics
- Fisheries, Economics of
- Forensics, Environmental
- Forest Transition
- Geodiversity and Geoconservation
- Geology, Environmental
- Global Phosphorus Dynamics
- Hazardous Waste
- Henry David Thoreau
- Historical Changes in European Rivers
- Historical Land Uses and Their Changes in the European Alp...
- Historical Range of Variability
- History, Environmental
- Human Impact on Historical Fluvial Sediment Dynamics in Eu...
- Humid Tropical Environments
- Hydraulic Fracturing
- India and the Environment
- Industrial Contamination, Case Studies in
- Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) for Climate Change
- International Land Grabbing
- Karst Caves
- Key Figures: North American Environmental Scientist Activi...
- Lakes: A Guide to the Scientific Literature
- Land Use, Land Cover and Land Management Change
- Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning
- Large Wood in Rivers
- Legacy Effects
- Lidar in Environmental Science, Use of
- Management, Australia's Environment
- Marine Mining
- Marine Protected Areas
- Mediterranean Environments
- Mountain Environments
- Muir, John
- Multiple Stable States and Regime Shifts
- Natural Fluvial Ecohydraulics
- Nitrogen Cycle, Human Manipulation of the Global
- Olmsted, Frederick Law
- Periglacial Environments
- Physics, Environmental
- Psychology, Environmental
- Remote Sensing
- Riparian Zone
- River Pollution
- Rivers, Effects of Dams on
- Rivers, Restoration of Physical Integrity of
- Sea Level Rise
- Secondary Forests in Tropical Environments
- Security, Energy
- Security, Environmental
- Security, Water
- Sediment Budgets and Sediment Delivery Ratios in River Sys...
- Sediment Regime and River Morphodynamics
- Semiarid Environments
- Soil Salinization
- Soils as an Environmental System
- Spatial Statistics
- Sustainable Finance
- Sustainable Forestry, Economics of
- Technological and Hybrid Disasters
- The Key Role of Energy in Economic Growth
- Thresholds and Tipping Points
- Treaties, Environmental
- Tropical Southeast Asia
- Use of GIS in Environmental Science
- Water Availability
- Water Quality in Freshwater Bodies
- Water Quality Metrics
- Water Resources and Climate Change
- Water, Virtual
- White, Gilbert Fowler
- Wildfire as a Catalyst
- Zone, Critical