The "animal rights debate," broadly conceived, is more than a contest of wills representing professional, economic, and ethical concerns; it is also a divisive, enduring topic in normative ethical theory (Vance). Until comparatively recently, discussions of the moral status of nonhuman animals had all but disappeared from the work of moral philosophers. (For a historical overview, see Ryder, 1989.) Beginning in the 1970s (Godlovitch et al.; Singer, 1975; Linzey, 1976; Clark), however, we have witnessed a historically unprecedented outpouring of philosophical and theological interest in exploring the moral ties that bind humans to other animals, and there is every indication that this interest will intensify in the coming decades. The moral theories of philosophers are not the stuff of politics; still, the contributions philosophers make can help shape the political debate by clarifying the major theoretical options available to an informed public.

Principal among these options are those that have been canvassed here: perfectionism, despotism and stewardship, contractarianism, Kantianism, utilitarianism, the rights view, deep ecology, and ecofeminism. Doubtless other options will evolve as the discussion continues (Garner). Among these options, two in particular—utilitarianism and the rights view—have offered the most systematic accounts of those duties owed directly to nonhuman animals. It will be instructive, before concluding, to highlight some of the important practical differences, particularly as these pertain to animal model research, that flow from these competing philosophies.

Because utilitarianism is committed to reducing the total amount of suffering in the world, its proponents must be prepared to recognize the moral legitimacy of some research on nonhuman animals. Even Peter Singer, contemporary utilitarianism's most forceful critic of such research, has conceded this possibility (Singer, 1993). Moreover, utilitarians must be similarly well disposed to the activities of animal care and use committees (Singer has served as a member of such a committee), provided that these committees conscientiously work to eliminate unnecessary animal suffering. Legislative attempts to improve the well-being of animals, whether in laboratories or on the farm, find support among utilitarians. Viewed in these respects, utilitarianism offers a philosophical basis for those who would reform the ways in which nonhuman animals are utilized by humans; what it does not offer is a categorical condemnation of this utilization. For this reason utilitarianism is congenial to those individuals and groups working to advance animal welfare—who accept, that is, the morality of human utilization of nonhuman animals in principle but who seek to improve it, by making it more humane, in practice.

The rights view has a different perspective on such matters (Francione and Regan). This philosophy is opposed to human utilization of nonhuman animals in principle and seeks to end it in practice. Its practical implications are abolitionist, not reformist. Because those nonhuman animals who exist as ends in themselves are never to be treated merely as means, it is wrong to experiment on them in the name of advancing the well-being of others. Moreover, to the extent that animal care and use committees and reformist legislation help to perpetuate social acceptance of human exploitation of these animals, whether on the farm or in the laboratory, advocates of the rights view will—or, to be consistent, should—withhold their support. What animal rights advocates can consistently support are incremental steps that put an end to certain practices within the larger context of animal exploitation—for example, legislation that would prohibit the use of nonhuman animals in cosmetic testing and in drug addiction experiments, and the creation of policies that end compulsory vivisection and dissection in the classroom (Francione and Charlton). When, as can often happen, utilitarians deem such practices unjustified because they cause gratuitous animal suffering, these two conflicting normative ethical philosophies—utilitarianism and the rights view—can speak with one voice. And when this happens, their potential political power is greater than the sum of its parts.

No one can predict which of the tendencies examined above—reform, abolition, or the status quo—will prevail in the coming years. Some positions (e.g., the rights view and ecofeminism) call for fundamental social change; others (e.g., Aristotelian perfectionism and Kant's view) call for much less. To the extent that people act because of their beliefs, the future of how humans treat other animals depends on what we humans believe the latter to be and how we think they should be treated. Because what we should do in practice depends on understanding what we ought to do in principle, our ability to give an appropriate response to the practical issues constituting the animal rights debate, broadly conceived—from whether we ought to be vegetarians to whether we should continue to use nonhuman animals in biomedical research—depends on our ability to make an informed, rational choice among normative ethical theories. In this respect, while a fair consideration of such theories may not be the end-all, it can make some claim to being at least part of the begin-all of a commitment to seek understanding and truth in these troubled waters.


SEE ALSO: Animal Research and Rights; Endangered Species and Biodiversity; Environmental Ethics; Pain and Suffering; Veterinary Ethics; and other Animal Welfare and Rights subentries

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