Direct and Indirect Duties

These differences emerge clearly when we consider how competing theories answer two distinct but related questions. The first asks, What are the grounds for morally limiting human freedom when it comes to human interactions with nonhuman animals? The second asks, How extensive are these moral limits on human freedom? The former inquires as to why human freedom should be limited at all when our actions affect other animals; the latter challenges us to investigate how much our freedom should be limited. Of the two questions, the first is the more basic, for the reasons given in support of views about how much our freedom should be limited ultimately are based on views about why our freedom should be limited in the first place.

Two opposed possibilities present themselves as answers to the first, more basic question. One possibility holds that it is because of how animals themselves are affected or treated by human agents that we should limit our freedom. Viewed from this perspective, nonhuman animals are entitled to a certain kind of consideration or treatment. Because such views stress the idea that something is owed or is due directly to these animals, it is common to refer to them as "direct duty" views.

The second possibility, by contrast, locates the ground of moral constraint in some basis other than the animals. Viewed from this perspective, humans owe nothing to other animals, nor do these animals deserve any sort of treatment or consideration. Rather, human freedom should be limited because, for example, human cruelty to other animals will cause humans to treat one another cruelly. Because such views deny that we have duties directly to other animals, while recognizing that other factors should limit our freedom in our dealings with them, they are commonly referred to as "indirect duty" views.

All normative ethical theories, as they address the moral status of nonhuman animals, fall into one or the other of these two classes. That is, either they affirm that we have direct duties to nonhuman animals, or they deny that we have direct duties. Some of the major theoretical options within each class, as these have been developed by ethicists within the history of Western thought, will be considered in what follows.

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