liberation or rights?

The need for an ethic regarding our treatment of animals grows with our ever increasing use of them for food, clothing, labour, medicine, Dan-Piraro-Bizarro-Comic-6research and education. This usage is becoming more mechanised and removed from our daily lives so that we may remain unaware of how inhumane it has become despite it’s importance to the human economy. This removal from daily experience has meant that cruel practices often go uncriticised in public debate. However, philosophers have been discussing the nature of our obligations to non-human animals since ancient times.

Recent moral theories that have elaborated on how we ought to treat animals have largely moved along two axes The first rely on utilitarian claims that we should minimise suffering and maximise happiness of animals because they have the capacity to feel; the second on deontological claims that because animals have ‘ends’, they too have inalienable rights that we should not transgress. Both these streams of thought are part of the ‘first extension’ of moral theories that deal with the equality of human beings, by extending that reasoning to other species.


Utilitarianism is the ethic that judges the rightness or wrongness of an action by it’s consequences for utility. Utility, according to Jeremy Bentham is based on “the greatest happiness principle”, in that actions are right in proportion to their promotion of happiness. Bentham saw the significance of this theory for our behaviour towards animals in that causing the suffering of animals was wrong because it was our moral obligation to promote happiness. Sentience, the ability to feel pleasure or suffer, is the defining criteria that warrants moral obligation. It is supposed that sentience entails having interests, and thus as our duty to maximise happiness, we must takes its interests into consideration.

This method of deciding moral issues was meant to alleviate all the problems associated with a rigid set of universalisable rules such as Kant espoused, that may sometimes lead to bad consequences. For instance, a ‘thou shalt not kill’ rule may prevent one from alleviating the suffering of a being when there is no prospect of recovery. Utilitarianism is thus thought incompatible with a rule-oriented Kantian ethic because it does not espouse absolute moral principles, actions being determined by circumstances. However, Kant proposed that we should treat the ends of others as we would treat our own, which is perfectly compatible with the utilitarian claim that “everyone counts for one and none for more than one” (Hare paraphrasing Bentham: 235)

Peter Singer, in All Animals are Equal (1974) argued that the basic principle of equality that we already apply in our dealings with other human beings can validly be extended to include other sentient beings. Singer, like Bentham, compares the liberation of animals from the “tyranny” of human usage to other liberation movements including the emancipation of slaves, and equal rights for women, both of which were initially considered unthinkable. we

Singer puts a lucid case against the traditional excuses we have used to exclude animals from the realm of consideration. He marks the fact that differences in our ability to reason, to use language, to form intentions based on learning are morally irrelevant, because such criteria may not be possessed by all humans, and indeed may be possessed by some animals even to a greater degree that some humans. Singer postulates a gradation of awareness amongst sentient beings that puts some humans on par with some animals. For instance, the intellectual capacity of a dog is evidently more advanced than the new-born human infant. If it is the case that “possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human being to use another for his own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans” (Singer 1974: 32) Thus both Singer and Bentham see no clear cut line between humans and animals.

The greatest strength of Singer’s utilitarianism is it’s justification of equality. Singer makes it clear that we cannot continue to embrace any notion of equality with consistency if we are not willing extend equality to animals.

we can only be logically consistent if we accept animals into the realm of consideration, or else reject the notion of equality for humans also.

Deontological or rights theory

In utilitarianism, no being has a ‘right’ to preferential treatment over any other, it is their interests that is paramount. Deontology is that moral framework that takes values to be independent of outcomes. As such, it is the values themselves that determine right behaviour, not consequences.

Kant’s theory of ethics espoused the intrinsic worth of human beings as ‘ends-in-themselves’ based on our ability to reason. Kant supposes that the ability to reason allows us to conceptualise our ‘ends’, and this somehow separates us from beings who are unable to conceptualise their ends, though he grants they may have them. While it is the relevance of reason to moral worth that Singer takes to task, it is Kant’s notion of inherent worth based on ends that animal rights theorist Tom Regan adopts in his Case for Animal Rights.

Even if humans were justified in claiming our superiority to animals in every respect, would that give us the right to use other species as we will? Tom Regan thinks not. If anything, our superiority as the possessors of language, consciousness or souls should rather increase our duty towards them.

Suppose it is true that all the other species utilize species “below” them…from this fact it does not follow that we humans ought to utilize the species below us, or that we do nothing wrong if we do so. Neither values not moral principles follow logically from facts…(Regan 1994:25)

Regan’s position is for the abolition of all animal usage by human beings. His view is that, since all living beings have ends, they are ‘ends-in-themselves’ and as such have inalienable rights to life and liberty. He espouses the notion of the ‘inherent value’ of all sentient life. Regan shows that we already accept such a notion for human beings, and that there is no valid reason for not extending that to animals. Indeed, Regan’s extension of moral consideration to animals argues against the very same claims to difference that Singer’s does.

Regan sees the wrong in human use of animals not in the fact that we cause them to suffer, but that we think we have the right to do so, to “view animals as our resources”, as means to our ends (Regan 1985:13).

It is not just a refinement or reduction that is called for, not just larger, cleaner cages, not just more generous use of anesthetic or the elimination of multiple surgery, not just tidying up the system. It is complete replacement. The best we can do when using animals is not to use them. (Regan 1994: 24)

Regan establishes the rights case by systematically excluding the claims of theorists who deny that animal deserve moral consideration, just has Singer has done.

Bernard Rollin agrees that if we are willing to attribute inherent value to human beings, regardless of their personal characteristics, then we must logically extend that to animals. Inherent value arises, for Rollin, out of the biological natures of living beings: He attributes to them a ‘telos’, “the infringement upon which matters greatly to them, and the fulfilment of which is central to their lives.” (1994:30)

One of the benefits of a deontological approach to animal ethics is that it stems from a fixed principle. Thus Regan can afford to be abolisionist in his stance towards animal usage, because from the notion of intrinsic worth it follows that no transgression of a beings right to respect will be brooked.


When we are making judgements about what is right or wrong treatment of others, human or animal, within a utilitarian framework, it is the consequences of our actions for the interests of those individuals that we should take into account. This is what Singer calls the “principle of consideration of interests” This principle does not entirely discount human usage of animals, where it is judged that the benefit to humans outweighs the harm to any individual animal, and thus can be used to justify animal use in medical research. The supremacy of the greater good over the suffering of the individual is a common criticism of utilitarianism.

Peter Carruthers writes that this flaw is ‘counter-intuitive to…questions of distributive justice” (1992:27)

Since all that utilitarianisn regards as mattering, in the end, is total…utility, the intense sufferings of a few can in principle be justified in terms of the marginal benefits of many (1992:27)

Another criticism of utilitarianism put forward by Carruthers and others, is that making moral judgements based on the outcomes seems to place an enormous burden on the individual to always be making conscious choices regarding everything. The difficulty of predicting outcomes becomes immediately obvious. Quite often animal based research that has shown promise in the theoretical stage, has not given the great result it was hoped, so lives may have been expended unnecessarily.

Bernard Williams says he ‘suspects’ that utilitarianism makes the notion of human integrity meaningless. Personal preferences are supposed to be overlooked in favour of utility. Williams understand good actions as requiring a personal commitment to certain values that acting out of utility seems to deny the need for. He suggests that utilitarians might overlook the importance of personal commitments to personal happiness, when they put utility towards general happiness in advance of personal projects, and that personal happiness is possibly as important to acting well towards others as is the happiness of others.

The Deontologial approach to ethics using the notion of intrinsic worth has been criticised by Singer for its vagueness. Singer considers appeals to intrinsic worth to be detrimental to the consideration of the rights of animals because he sees it needs an appeal to some common characteristic. Singer seems to imply a ‘slippery slope’ of commitment to a separation of moral worth based on characteristics that threatens to undermine consequentialist morality. However, Regan denies the relevance of personal characteristics in deciding moral worth, the intrinsic value of individuals coming from beyond personal talents. He identifies that value in the fact that we are all the “experiencing subjects of a life”(Regan 1994: 23)

Despite the fact that rights theory and utilitarian theory have different means of encompassing animals in the realm of moral consideration, they do manage to agree that is their end. Essentially, the similarities between animals and humans, in particular sentience, are the grounds by which this equality of consideration is based. However, for Regan it is the fact that we are all “the experiencing subjects of a life” that make us equal; while for Singer we are equal by virtue of our having interests (especially that of avoiding pain). What they do wholly agree on is that the first extension of moral consideration to animals is the logical progression of other liberation movements, and that by espousing such a view one is committed to act on it. As Regan says, “philosophy is no substitute for action” (Regan 1994:24)

Kim Stewart 2001


Carruthers, P 1992 The Animal Issue, Cambridge University Press, NY: USA

Hare, RM 1999 “Why I am only a demi-vegetarian” in Jamieson, D (ed) Singer and his Critics, Basil Blackwell: UK

Kant, I 1994 “We have only indirect duties to animals”, in Environmental Ethics, Pojman, L (ed), Jones, Bartlett and Sons: USA

Regan, T 1985 “The case for animal rights” in In Defence of Animals, Singer, P (ed) Basil Blackwell: UK

Rollin, B 1994 “Sentience is the criterion for moral worth” in Environmental Ethics, Pojmnan, L (ed), Jones, Bartlett and Sons

Singer, P 1998 “All animals are equal” in Environmental Philosophy: from animal rights to radical ecology, Zimmerman, M (ed) Prentice Hall

Singer, P 1976 Animal Liberation, Englewood Cliffs: NJ

Williams, B “Two examples” in Utilitarianism: For and Against


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