Ethical Perspectives On The Treatment And Status Of Animals

Normative ethical theory may be conceived as the systematic inquiry into the moral limits on human freedom. Philosophers and theologians throughout history and across cultures have offered different, often contradictory, answers to the central question of ethics thus conceived. Some have argued, for example, that the only justified limits on human freedom are those grounded in the rational self-interest of the agent, while others have maintained that the foundations of morality, and thus the basis of morally justified limitations on human freedom, are logically distinct from self-interest, though not from the dictates of reason. Still others have alleged that the foundations of morality have nothing to do with either reason or self-interest.

In view of the variety and conflicting nature of answers to the central question of normative ethics, it is hardly surprising that ethical theories sometimes offer strikingly different accounts of the moral status of those nonhuman animals we humans raise or hunt for food and clothing, use as beasts of burden, train to entertain us, and utilize as models for purposes of biomedical research. No philosopher or theologian has gone so far as to say that, from the moral point of view, there are no justified limits on what we may do to these animals. Even René Descartes, much celebrated for his theory that nonhuman animals are automata and thus incapable of feeling either pain or pleasure (Descartes, "Animals Are Machines," in Regan and Singer, 1976; 1989), is said to have treated his dog humanely. At a certain minimal level, then, all normative ethical theories speak with one voice. But at other levels, the differences are both real and deep.

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